It took three months and an order issued by a visibly angry and disgusted judge, but Chris Vannote was finally able to recover the cell phone that was confiscated last fall by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

It had been the announced intention of the LASD to keep that phone until after a resisting and obstructing charge against Vannote had been fully “adjudicated.”

Last November 18, Vannote of Los Angeles was arrested for “obstruction” while video-recording LASD deputies who were searching an SUV. The encounter, which lasted a little less than four minutes, can be seen in the video from Vannote’s tardily recovered cellphone.

“Hey! Get over there!” one of the officers, a Deputy Soliz, barks at Vannote as the citizen videographer approached the scene of the search. Gesturing across the street, Soliz told Vannote that if he wanted to videotape the incident, “go over there.”

Following an exchange of unpleasant epithets, Vannote retreated to the other side of the street, where he briefly interviewed local residents about the police stop. He then crossed the street again, asking the deputies where the police line was and pointing out that “I’m 25-30 feet from the crime scene.”

Within seconds, Vannote is swarmed and arrested without explanation, a block away from where he would be cited three months later for jaywalking for recording deputies from the same agency.

“The officer kept telling me to `Get back,’” Vannote recalled to PINAC. “He wouldn’t tell me where the police line was, so I stayed a reasonable distance from the search – and wound up getting arrested and charged with obstruction.”

As documented by Vannote’s video, the citizen journalist never interfered with or obstructed Deputy Solis in any way. He did not distract the officers, threaten them, or do anything to incite violence or a public tumult. By any plausible definition, Vannote maintained what the law and relevant policy guidelines describe as a “reasonable distance” from the scene.

“With phone/video in hand, I took a measuring tape out to the alleged crime scene,” Vannote observed in an email after recovering his property from the LASD. “By my measurements, based upon the video evidence, my feet were approximately 31′ from the feet of the deputy who accused me of interfering at the time of the arrest.”

Two days after his arrest, Vannote was released from jail, and the obstruction charge was dropped. However, it was reinstated without notice when he didn’t consent to a search of the cellphone.

“When I went to recover my cellphone, the clerk I spoke to said, `Well, we’ve got to talk about that – you’ll have to talk to a judge,’” Vannote recalled. “That’s when I found out that a bench warrant had been issued against me.”

When Vannote refused to permit a search of the phone, the LCSD applied for a search warrant, but it was denied. In spite of this, “They continued to hold on to the phone anyway. We asked for copies of the warrant and the application, but we got nothing.”

After the deputy filed a second warrant application, “the judge told me that he understood the privacy concerns involved and assured me that he would draw up a very narrow warrant in order to protect them,” Vannote observed.

On April 2, prosecutor Matt Allan from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s  Office “told my lawyer that `we’re done with it’ and that the phone was ready to be released,” Vannote continues. Two days later “I went to the station, but the deputy wouldn’t return the phone.”

During a video-recorded encounter at the sheriff’s office, Detective Eddie Retamoza told Vannote that the phone would be returned “when the case is adjudicated, which means the case is done, then I can release your phone to you.”

Frustrated but composed, Vannote pointed out, on the record, that the phone contained critical evidence for his upcoming trial.

“It’s probative, the judge has agreed, the DA has said you’re done with it – it’s been three months now,” Vannote reminded Detective Retamoza, who replied that “The case is still going on.”

“So what you’re telling me is that short of a judge’s order, you’re not releasing it,” Vannote summarized.
“That’s right,” replied Retamoza.

“What they were telling me,” Vannote commented to PINAC, “is that they would not turn over evidence I need to defend myself in court until after the case was finished.”

The LASD continued its determined obstructionism until April 2, when Judge Daniel Juarez of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County ordered the agency to relinquish the illegally held cellphone.

“It appeared to me that he was getting pissed,” Vannote related to PINAC. “He told the Sheriff’s office that if they didn’t comply by April 17, he’d summon them to court.”

The behavior of the LASD in this entire affair “just reeks of malfeasance,” Vannote insists. “Not only did they hold on to my phone despite being repeatedly told by the DA’s office that they were done with it, but they never turned over any of the paperwork – the affidavits, the warrants, and so on.”

In addition to violating both the law and instructions from the DA’s office, the LASD’s conduct in this case demonstrated the department’s contempt for its own policy regarding citizen photojournalism.

As laid out in a letter issued one year ago today (April 3), that policy recognizes that “Members of the public, including the press, have a First Amendment right to observe, take photographs and record video in any public place where they are lawfully present. Photography and the recording of video are common activities and are neither crimes nor indications of criminal activity, in themselves. Neither photography nor the recording of video, standing alone, can form the basis for a detention, arrest, or warrantless search.”

Because members of the public “have the right to take photographs and record videos of peace officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties, including such activities as detentions, searches and arrests,” deputies “should assume they are being recorded at all times when on duty,” the letter admonishes.

Most importantly, LASD personnel “are prohibited from interfering, intimidating, blocking or otherwise discouraging a member of the public, who is not violating any other law, from taking photographs or recording video … in any place the member of the public is lawfully present.”

The treatment inflicted on Chris Vannote violated that policy in every particular. This didn’t come as a surprise to Shawn Nee, another Los Angeles resident who was unlawfully detained and questioned by LASD officer Richard Gylfie for taking photographs of turnstiles at the Metro Rail station.

After being accosted by the deputy, Nee quietly pointed out that he had not broken any law as you can see in the video below.

“You’re not getting’ it,” Gylfie huffily responded. “This is a terrorist target.”

“It’s still not illegal,” Nee pointed out.

“Did I say it was illegal?” Gylfie rejoined. “It’s against MTA rules” – a claim that was flatly untrue, since the Metro Guidelines allow photography in public places.

When Nee pointed out that as a photographer’s rights advocate he knew the rules, Gylfie demanded ID.

“Al-Qaeda would love to buy your pictures, so I want to know if you are in cahoots with al-Qaeda to sell your pictures to them for terrorist purposes,” Gylfie declared, provoking an incredulous snicker from Nee. “That’s a crime. You understand?”

As the encounter progressed, Gylfie became more agitated and hostile, ordering Nee to “get your hands out of your pockets when I’m talking to you” and telling him that he would be detained “until I determine you have not committed a crime.”

Gylfie – joined by a second deputy — eventually laid hands on Nee, subjecting him to a pat-down and warrantless interrogation for refusing to “cooperate.”

“If you’re down here taking pictures and selling them to al-Qaeda so they can blow up our subway system I’ve got a problem with that,” declared Gylfie after ordering Nee to sit on the ground.

For a couple of minutes Gylfie brow-beat Nee, pretending that his innocuous activity was somehow a threat to public safety and dismissively insisting that because Nee isn’t in law enforcement he had “no clue” about the nature of the terrorist threat. Eventually, the deputy dispensed with any pretense that he was investigating a suspected crime, rather than summarily punishing an uppity citizen for “contempt of cop.”

“You know what? I’ll just submit your name to TLO [the department’s Terrorism Liaison Office with the FBI]. Every time your driver’s license gets scanned, every time you take a plane, any time you go on any type of public transit system where they look at your identification you’re gonna be stopped,” Gylfie said, chuckling.

“You will be detained, you’ll be searched. You will be on the FBI’s hit list. Is that what you want?”

With the help of the ACLU, Nee – along with two other photographers who endured similar harassment — filed a lawsuit against the LASD. That suit was settled more than a year ago – yet Nee and the other victorious plaintiffs are still awaiting their monetary settlements.

As the Los Angeles Times pointed out in January, the LASD and county supervisors have a well-established pattern of delaying payment on such civil settlements, even ignoring court-dictated deadlines. Since that story came out, the county has paid the lawyers, but Nee said he is still waiting for his share.

“What we’ve seen is that the LASD doesn’t see itself as subject to the same laws as the rest of us,” Nee told PINAC. “They agree to settlements that require deputies to respect the rights of the public, and then continue abusing people without consequences.”

In Chris Vannote’s more recent case, the LASD field-tested what may become a new weapon in its war on citizen journalism. Not only did a deputy arrest a photographer journalist without cause, and file a spurious “resisting and obstructing” charge to justify that arrest – but the agency attempted to deprive the defendant of the evidence he needed to fight the charge in court.