A group of friends visiting an ultra-Orthodox Jewish town north of New York City ended up getting harassed for taking photos and eventually arrested for refusing to provide identification.
They were accused of “suspicious activity,” but it’s obvious the only thing suspicious about them was that they were out-of-town non-Orthodox Jews taking photos.
They managed to videotape the entire incident, which is always a positive sign, but the video is disturbing because it shows New York State police officers insisting upon their identifications, even though there was no reasonable suspicion they had committed a crime.
“We don’t know who you are or why you’re out here taking pictures,” a New York State police officer says at one point in the above video.
As photographers, it is important for us to know how to handle situations where we are asked for identification.
Photography is not reasonable suspicion unless you’re shooting child porn or photographing someone who has an obvious expectation of privacy.
But many cops either don’t know that or simply ignore that fact.
When I was harassed for taking photos last year on the Miami-Dade Metrorail, an officer demanded my identification, which I refused at first.
But after much prodding, I eventually gave in for the simple reason that I did not care if they knew who I was and I did not want the ID issue to overshadow the photography issue.
But as far as I can tell, I really didn’t have to provide them with my identification because all I was doing was photographing trains, which she wrongly said was illegal.
This incident began when John Zwinck, who lives in Manhattan, read an article in the New York Times about Kiryas Joel, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish town in Orange County.
He gathered some friends, took a train to the nearest station, then hiked about five miles towards the town to check it out.
They knew something wasn’t kosher when they came across a “Welcome to Kiryas Joel” sign suggesting that they cover their legs, arms and necklines and maintain “gender separation in all public areas.”
Then things just got weirder, according to his post on Reddit.
After a few minutes, a black Suburban rolls up in front of us. Two guys get out. One of them never speaks, but has a shirt that says Public Safety. The other is wearing traditional orthodox clothes: black pants, white shirt, black vest, and a yarmulke. We later learn his name is Moses. He immediately demands identification from all of us. I ask him why, and he says that he got a call for suspicious activity. I tell him we are just visiting on foot, and that we haven’t taken any pictures of people. I tell my friends that I don’t think they have to provide ID unless they want to. Moses says if we don’t provide ID he will arrest us. I see this as ridiculous, and start walking again.
A few moments later, someone grabs me from behind. I turn around, and Moses is holding my arm. I yell “assault, assault” just in case it’s not clear to the few bystanders that it’s not consensual. Moses eventually lets me go, and again I continue on my way, and my friends come along.
We walk a short while more to the local cafe where we had planned to have lunch. Before we had time to order food, a New York State Police officer appears and tells us to come outside. We do, and I start recording video.
The New York State police officers end up arresting two of the five who refused to provide identification on charges of obstructing government administration. Check out their photos here.
It turns out that Moses Witroil, the hulking Orthodox Jew who initially harassed them, is named in a federal lawsuit for misusing his authority against local people.
But Witroil had enough clout with the New York State cops to label the five hikers as suspicious without any supporting evidence.
Several commenters on Reddit, which is usually a pretty anti-authoritative site, deride the hikers for not providing identification, accusing them of needlessly stirring the pot.
But why should they have given up their Fourth Amendment rights just because somebody viewed their First Amendment rights as suspicious?
What would you have done in this situation?