An intern for a Seattle-based investigative news site was harassed by security guards and stopped by a deputy for taking photos of an energy refinery from a public street.
The incident took place last month outside the ConocoPhillips refinery near Bellingham as student intern Will Graff was taking photos from outside the facility’s fence for an upcoming story in Investigative West about the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, which can be devastating if leaked.
Within moments, a security guard told him he was committing a “federal offense.”
I stepped out of my truck and started taking photos of the refinery. Soon after my first pictures, a white Ford Escape quickly appeared. A security guard hopped out and said, “You aren’t allowed to take pictures here, it’s a federal offense.”
I told him I was on a public street and have a right to take pictures from where I was. He repeated himself and radioed the make, model and license plate number of my truck. A woman’s voice responded, “Is he still taking pictures?” I was. The guard said the refinery manager was coming out to speak to me and that they would call the sheriff and confiscate my pictures. Within a minute or two, two men arrived in a white Saturn. They asked me what I was doing and I explained.
Graff maintained his right to take photos, so they eventually left him alone, meaning they most likely knew it wasn’t a federal offense to take photos from a public street.
As he left, two security vehicles followed close behind. Then he was pulled over by a deputy.
I rolled down my passenger-side window as he approached. “I stopped you because I got a call from the refinery that you were out there taking pictures,” he said.
So much for probable cause.
The deputy demanded his driver’s license, walked back to his squad car where he most likely ran Graff’s name through dispatch, before returning the license and sending him on his way.