Southern California journalist Greggory Moore was hoping to take some photos of people texting or talking on their cell phones while driving for a story he was writing.
He stood outside his home – which happens to be across the street from the Long Beach Courthouse – and started snapping away at passing drivers.
After about 15 minutes, eight Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies descended upon him as if he had been waving a firearm instead of a camera.
He was detained, frisked and questioned.
Here is how he describes it in the first of two articles he published about the June 2 incident in the Long Beach Post.
“You were suspiciously doing something gave us probable cause to contact you," said Sgt. Maurice Hill, the lead officer on the scene — that "suspicious activity" being my seeming to photograph the courthouse.
To leave the scene, I was required to provide my name, address, phone number, driver's license number, the name of the publication for which I was writing and the publisher's name and contact information. To get my camera back, I was required to show one of the officers its contents.
Or that's what it felt like. The truth is, I was asked to show an officer the pics I'd taken, and I'm kicking myself that I didn't refuse. As for the rest of the information I provided, it didn't occur to me to decline it. They certainly didn't put it to me like I had a choice. And I tend to do what police officers tell me to do.
Moore decided to do a bit more research on the incident, contacting Sgt. Hill as well as other cops, prosecutors and even a city councilwoman to get more answers regarding detainment and body frisk searches of photographers.
This was Hill’s response:
"We have a duty to check out any suspicious circumstances," he says. And though he stipulates that there is no official directive stating that an individual taking pictures of the courthouse is, as a matter of legal fact, suspicious or must be acted upon, he says photographing the courthouse "always meets the standard for making contact [with the photographer]. Now, how it's done is a different thing."
He's anticipating — correctly — part of my issue with what happened: whether or not I was actually detained. He says he did not witness this part of the incident and so cannot comment. When I ask whether he feels someone taking pictures of the courthouse rises to the level warranting detainment, he declines comment, as he does on whether it is within policy to detain someone lacking probable cause.1
He goes on to say that it is within policy not only to perform a "pat-down search" (his term) despite lacking probable cause, but that "taking pictures of the courthouse does meet the standard for a pat-down search."
But Hill says that whether such a search is performed is up to the discretion of the officer. Should one have been conducted in my situation? "Probably not," he says.
But Hill is a beat cop, not accustomed to talking to journalists, so Moore interviewed the public information officer for the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.
And like most PIO’s, Sgt. Rich Peña, ended up talking in circles.
According to Sgt. Rich Peña, a PIO for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, whether officers contact an individual solely for photographing a courthouse or other similar institution "depends on what the situation is at that particular facility. If they have some sort of intelligence or some sort of information saying something's going to happen, or if they're on high alert ..."
However, Peña says that typically an individual would not be detained solely for taking pictures.
And is eight officers excessive in such a circumstance? "On the face of it, yes," Peña says. "But I can think of 10 different reasons why you'd have eight guys out there." As a possible example he offers a scenario where several trainees were available when such a call came in, along with a lead officer who wants them to see how to handle a given situation. "But it does seem like a lot," he admits. "But without knowing what they were thinking, I couldn't tell you. … [But] if you tell me all the guy was doing was taking pictures and I'm John Q. Citizen, I say okay, that sounds like a lot. "
Peña names "reasonableness" as the standard that must be met for officers to conduct a pat-down search. "Is it reasonable to think the person may be a threat to your safety?" he says rhetorically.
Moore then contacted the Long Beach Police Department – who could easily have responded to the incident – and asked if photographing the courthouse warrants enough reasonable suspicion to detain a citizen.
"It depends. There's no black-and-white answer to that question," says Sgt. Rico Fernandez, a department spokesperson. "Detentions are based on reasonable suspicion, and that's a law that applies to the entire state of California. Reasonable suspicion is based on the officer's belief that a crime has occurred, is occurring, or is about to occur."
Fernandez confirms that taking photographs of the courthouse is a legal activity. "But a courthouse is considered a critical facility," he says, "and if somebody calls to report what they believe is suspicious, any law-enforcement agency receiving that call has an obligation to investigate."
But does it take eight officers to do so? Fernandez balks at saying how many officers clearly would be too many, but states, "Generally, that's the type of call that one officer would respond to."
Once officers responded and contacted the photographer, would they automatically conduct a pat-down search? "I am not saying everyone would do it or everyone has to do it," Fernandez says, "but you can be subjected to a pat-down search legally if you are the subject of a detention."
He then contacted Gary Alexander, a Long Beach assistant city attorney who obviously never learned fundamental First Amendment law.
Alexander says he doesn't know offhand if taking pictures of the courthouse is legal, but he says that if it is legal, in and of itself it does not rise to the level at which police may detain a person. As for pat-down searches, Alexander says they may be conducted on a detainee "for safety reasons."
Then he contacted Long Beach Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal, who represents the area where he was detained. And still didn’t get clear answers. Just a prepared statement.
"Not knowing the exact details or what type of security threats the courthouse experiences, it's hard to comment. That being said, I want to preserve the need and right of law enforcement to protect high profile local, state and federal properties, but feel this incident could have been handled better given your constitutional rights."
However, her office declined to comment on any issues related to the possibility that police in her district are detaining and pat-down searching persons at variance with state and federal law.
Moore probably should have interviewed a First Amendment lawyer or a criminal lawyer to get more solid answers.
But the responses he received from the people with the authority to make a difference in this ongoing War on Photography proves we are in for a long fight.
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