It's happened across America -- citizens arrested for taking a photograph by overzealous law enforcement. When can you be arrested and when can you argue?
The scene is repeated across America millions of times each year. Citizens raise their cameras to snap a picture and immortalize what they see. Taking photographs is as much of the American fabric as driving a car.
But since 9-11, that right has begun to erode like so many others: walking unencumbered onto an airplane; living without the multitude of leering surveillance cameras; gaining entrance to a public building without showing identification.
I get the reason for all the cautious security, I honestly do. I think our country is still under the threat of a terrorist attack. But some of those with badges tasked with monitoring the threat overstep their bounds in the name of national security. I can't get over the feeling that every time they over-react the terrorists -- who are determined to change our freedom loving way of life -- win.
The Patriot Act of 2001, signed by President G.W. Bush and renewed by President Barack Obama, expanded law enforcement powers to search for evidence of possible terrorist activity. The law says nothing about allowing officers to order us to put down our cameras, cell phones and other recording devices. Yet, in case after case, it is this law that's invoked when a security official wants to get a civilian to stop taking pictures.
I've read about all sorts of horror stories involving the seemingly innocent taking of photographs.
In February, Nancy Genovese stopped her car on a public road, outside a public airport and took a picture she thought would be great for her "Support Our Troops" web site. After this mother of three snapped photos of a decorative helicopter display she was arrested by Suffolk County, New York officers and told she was being charged with terrorism. After a long ordeal, including being put into a strait jacket and a solitary cell, she was charged with criminal trespass. Genovese sued the town and police department for 70 million dollars in a suit that is still pending.
Then there was the story of a veteran NASA employee named Walter Miller who was spotted taking pictures of an art exhibit near the Indianapolis City-County building. He was detained and told to stop because "homeland security" prohibited photos of the facility. Just so you understand the nonsensical nature of this, Google that Indiana building and see how many pictures of the structure are already out there.
If the subject of someone's photograph happens to be a police officer the photographer can be in serious jeopardy -- even if they take the picture in their own home.
In Houston, a homeowner named Francisco Olvera was having a house party when an officer responded to a noise complaint. When asked for his identification Olvera went to get his wallet. He did not think the officer had the right to follow him inside so he snapped his picture with his cell phone. Big mistake. Olvera was charged with illegal photography, public intoxication and loud music. All charges were later dropped.
Anthony Graber. a motorcyclist in Maryland. admits he was speeding on the highway and should have anticipated he might be pulled over by a state trooper. But he failed to turn off his helmet cam during the stop and after he posted the video on the internet Graber got the surprise of his life. He was indicted for violating the state's wiretapping laws. He faces up to 16 years in prison.
In Seattle, amateur photographer Bogdan Mohora happened to be an eye-witness to police arresting a man on a public street. By his account, he was ten feet away when he took a few pictures and began to walk away. The officers followed and demanded his camera. When Mohora asked what he had done wrong he was handcuffed and taken to the precinct. No charges were filed but he was told he could have been arrested for provoking a riot or endangering a police officer. Mohora won an $8,000 settlement with the city.
I could go on and on with cases of civilians -- and some members of the accredited media -- begin harassed for taking a photo or a few minutes of video. But I think you get my drift.
For those who think over-vigilant security is better than being lax the words of security expert Bruce Schneier may be of interest. "Look at the 9/11 attacks, the Moscow and London subway bombings, the Fort Hood shooting -- no photos," he says. "I'm not seeing a whole lot of plots that hinge on photography." Other security professionals point to the POSITIVE aspects of a citizenry armed with Canons, Nikons and Flip-cams. After the unsuccessful Times Square car-bombing detectives found clues about the suspect in home movies shot by tourists. Police departments across the country are making arrests by watching videos posted on YouTube by short sighted shutterbugs.
I don't want to give up any more of my rights as an American citizen. And I don't think we need to if only we would adequately train all security personnel about the specifics of the law in their state.
Citizens have every right to take a picture or video in a public place as long as they don't disturb the peace or impede police from doing their duty. To think otherwise is downright un-American.
Diane Dimond can be reached through her web site: www.DianeDimond.com Her latest book, "Cirque du Salahi" the inside story of the so-called White House Gate Crashers is available through Amazon.com
Don’t miss out — be the first to know all the latest and breaking news. Learn more