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The War on Photography: Being Detained for Having a Camera

Filming the police is increasingly considered a criminal act in the United States. Law enforcement are increasingly willing to use “suspicious activity reporting” (SAR) programs to abuse power and target those who are lawfully photographing federal buildings or national landmarks. And, more and more often artists and journalists are finding themselves harassed. has posted an interview with Jerome Vorus, who was detained and questioned by police after he photographed a traffic stop in Georgetown. Vorus and the ACLU are going to court, alleging that he was illegally detained and had his First Amendment rights violated.



As Vorus explains:

July of 2010 I was walking through Georgetown. I came across a traffic stop so I thought just for collection that I would take a couple shots…of the police engaged at a traffic stop. I proceeded to take my photos. And, I took a couple and when I moved to the other side of the street, I was immediately stopped by one officer and they asked for security reasons why I was taking pictures. I just told them that I wanted to have photos for collection. And that officer skated around my question of was I being detained or not and eventually came back and said no. But, by that time another officer came and requested my identification and said that I was being detained.

Vorus speculates that maybe the police do not want citizens or the press to document what is happening.

Cases of police abusing their authority when faced with someone with a camera appear in the news on almost a daily basis. Just five days ago, Michael Gannon, someone who had charges dropped against him for videotaping police in 2006, was arrested again for having a camera. Techdirt pieces together how the arrest went down:

(1)Police drove by Gannon and yelled something about his son. (2) Gannon responded with a definite wisecrack: “There goes corruption at its finest.” (3) The police stopped and confronted Gannon. (4) Gannon apparently asked if he was being arrested, and was originally told no, so he turned to walk away. (4) At this point the police tackled him, maced him, handcuffed him, punched him and kicked him. (5) As he was being tackled, he tossed the video camera to someone on the street who was witnessing the whole confrontation, Pamela Reynolds. (6) Reynolds claims she wanted nothing to do with any of this, and immediately tossed the camera that was thrown to her into the bushes right next to her, just as a way of showing she had nothing to with any of it. (7) Police arrested Reynolds (and maced her as well) for (get this) “falsifying evidence,” in tossing the camera.

In March of this year, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against two Newark police officers for illegally detaining and threatening honors student Khaliah Fitchette, who at the time of the arrest was a 17-year-old who had been accepted to Cornell. Fitchette was on a city bus when a man collapsed. Officers boarded the bus. Fitchette began to film. Officer told her to stop filming and turn off the phone. Fitchette did not stop and was grabbed. Her phone was taken away and the video she had taken was deleted. The officers handcuffed her, put her in the car and drover her to Newark’s Juvenile Processing Center.


Newark has a particular problem with filming police, as they too have been detained and harassed. Back in 2008, a CBS2 cameraman in Newark, New Jersey, was put into a chokehold and then arrested for attempting to do his job at a public demonstration. (The officer, who put the cameraman in a chokehold, was suspended after the incident. CBS2 has pursued a lawsuit that is still ongoing.)

California, Nevada, Washington, Montana, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland and Florida each have two-party consent wiretapping laws. A person is said to be in violation if both parties do not consent to recording. However, ten of those twelve states, as Reason points out, say a “violation occurs only when the offended party has a reasonable expectation that the conversation is private. This privacy provision prevents people who record public meetings or inadvertently pick up conversations while shooting video in public from accidentally committing felonies.”

In Chicago, the crime of photography is most definitely enforced. Artist Chris Drew found this out, when he was arrested in December 2009. Drew, who has a history of challenging the city’s restrictions on the selling of art, was peddling silk-screened patches for $1 in an act of civil disobedience. He had a First Amendment lawyer and a team of photographers film his arrest. The police let the filming go, but when it was time for Drew to face his charges he found he had been given a Class 1 felony charge for violating the Illinois Eavesdropping Act and filming his arrest.

Under the law, legal interns for the ACLU cannot take their iPhone out and photograph what is happening for legal purposes without fear of being detained. That’s one of the main reasons the ACLU has challenged the law itself. If it can’t photograph police, how can it reasonably protect citizens’ rights?

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."