By Robin Sax and Carmela Kelly
The paparazzi have officially gone overboard. They are overzealous, over the top and will go to any lengths for a photo, story, blurb, shot. Yes, our society is obsessed with celebrity gossip and pop-culture; but there is a limit. Endangering the celebrities themselves or the people around them (let alone the rest of the average joe-citizens) just to pursue the "ultimate pic" is not worth it.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a new bill into law, going into effect Jan. 1, that addresses the issue of the swarming paparazzi. The new law will make it easier to protect celebrities, the public, and to prosecute over-aggressive paparazzi and increase public safety.
The new law will play a significant role in identifying and enforcing criminal misconduct by the paparazzi. Assembly Bill 2479 makes it a criminal act to willfully follow another vehicle too closely or commit reckless driving in pursuit of "any visual image, sound recording or other physical impression of another person for a commercial purpose." It also makes surrounding a celebrity or a celebrity's vehicle in a manner that prevents escape illegal and punishable with fines and imprisonment.
Press secretary Sam Katzen, who represents Assembly Speaker Emeritus Karen Bass, the author of the bill, confirms it is the first criminal "anti-paparazzi" law enacted in California. An Assembly analysis from earlier this year reports that California began enacting laws to rein in aggressive and overzealous paparazzi in 1998 in the wake of Princess Diana's death. The analysis suggests that despite those laws, the Assembly continues to hear reports on "increasing tension between celebrities and photographers, which at times has escalated to the point of physical confrontations."
Private investigator reveals chase scene
Jesse Martell, a Los Angeles-based private investigator who has been involved with the Britney Spears camp in attempting to serve her ex-boyfriend and paparazzo with restraining order papers, has direct experience with some paparazzi's driving tactics.
"As a licensed investigator, I have witnessed first-hand the paparazzi chasing celebrities in their vehicles, blocking other motorists, weaving in and out of traffic, and generally creating dangerous driving conditions. On April 12, 2010, while working for a celebrity, I encountered five separate vehicles driven by paparazzi. My vehicle was consistently blocked and cut off as these drivers drove at an excessive rate of speed and aggressively maintained close proximity to the celebrity's vehicle," he wrote to Gov. Schwarzenegger in May 2010.
Martell says that while the new law takes a step in the right direction with regards to public safety, it doesn't prevent the paparazzi from conducting surveillance. "It's a lot like the secret service in protecting the president," he says as to nature of his assignments.
He watches for "anything that could possibly go wrong or that could put the client in danger."
While Martell supports the new law, he proposed to Gov. Schwarzenegger a law to restrict surveillance that Martell describes as the "act of following a person to monitor or observe the behavior and activities of the individual or individuals." Martell wants a law that prohibits automobile surveillance except for law enforcement officials and licensed private investigators.
"Such a law would make it a crime for a person to follow another in a vehicle to monitor their activity. This would prohibit paparazzi from conducting dangerous surveillance activity. This law would also be effective in stopping any person or groups that may be plotting to harm another person. Introducing and approving such a bill will only strengthen public safety," he wrote.
He meanwhile says that the new law may soon produce a prosecution and readers here will be some of the first in the public to understand what is happening. Martell says that under the previous civil law, an investigator such as himself was required to support any allegation against paparazzo with independent corroborating evidence that the defendant had "engaged in a pattern of conduct" and that the invasive conduct was "committed for a commercial purpose."
In other words, with the new law, paparazzi can be arrested and prosecuted for reckless acts used to chase a celebrity or falsely imprisoning a celebrity on a sidewalk or in a vehicle.
The law is intended to promote public safety and applies to anyone, not just paparazzi, who tries to get a picture a celebrity using any of the methods now barred by the law, says Martell.
Private investigators lead enforcement
Private investigators will play a significant role in enforcing AB 2479 come Jan. 1. "The ranks of police officers are spread thin," says Bill Hodgman, head,Target Crimes Division, Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, and one of the most respected and sound DAs there is.
"They're not doing to be in direct observation of an action. Generally, private security is going to be the most close to the line." Often outside of public view, celebrities have used private investigators for years to identify and eliminate perceived threats to their safety and that of their children by stalkers.
Mark Geragos, an attorney who represents Joel Madden and Nicole Richie, in a case involving a paparazzo lingering around Richie's two year old at school, says celebrities frequently use private investigators.
"Many celebrities use private investigators. It's true. It's an unfortunate byproduct of the tabloid culture. You have to go to that length," says Geragos. Geragos predicts that the public will see an immediate handful of cases against the paparazzi in January to test out the new law. He predicts those cases will be based on evidence and case files put together by private investigators.
Hodgman describes some steps already in use to prosecute and convict offenders. Private investigators, retained by celebrities, identify individual paparazzi involved and document the action. "Any criminal prosecutor is going to be interested in competent evidence if they are to initiate prosecution. You've got to document a crime," says Hodgman. Private investigators, if able to assemble evidence of a crime, bring the case to a local law enforcement agency, such as the Malibu or West Hollywood police departments. Both cities contract with the District Attorney's office to try misdemeanor charges.
"The police agency further investigates and when they have developed sufficient evidence they present it to our office," says Hodgman.
Private investigators needed to make law successful
"It would be unusual and controversial if a police department set up a special detail to follow a celebrity around for their safety. They'll be provided with the same that the public is provided regarding personal safety," says investigator Martell.
Sean Burke, founder of the PRI and a former security team leader for high profile celebrities, says private investigators need to be involved. "You have to have a private investigator who follows you and follows who is following you," says Burke. He describes the paparazzi and public worlds of celebrities as difficult and "mobbish" with groups of very bad, very aggressive people.
"Nobody really understands the problem," he says. "Their (celebrities) lives are in danger. It's crowded. How do you prosecute that? How do you identify them? The police have their hands full with major crime." Security teams need to know who is in the crowd. Burke describes stalkers as the most dangerous thing out there and says that the easiest thing a person can do is pick up a camera to blend in. He had to constantly be aware of who was causing threats. "You bring in private investigators when you have threats," he says.
Martell adds, "Investigators have been a valuable source to many celebrities who have encountered violent situations in public. These investigators have had an overwhelming success in determining and identifying a problematic individual. Upon a civil or criminal law being violated, the investigator carries out the task of gathering irrefutable evidence that can be used in a court of law."
AB 2479 has teeth
AB 2479 not only allows violators to be apprehended, arrested and charged with a crime, it changes the way celebrities will be able to prosecute and file lawsuits against paparazzi.
In the past, investigators, in pursuing evidence to curb aggressive paparazzi on behalf of their clients, had to connect a specific reckless act to an image to create sufficient evidence to file a civil suit. They scanned sites such as TMZ, X17, tabloids and other media, to try to match photos to the reckless acts committed by paparazzi in taking them.
With the filing of a criminal violation, the second phase of filing a civil suit becomes easier, says Martell, though he doesn't know how many celebrities will follow up on the second phase, once criminal charges are filed against a paparazzi breaking the law.
"These celebrities don't need the money. They are only interested in having these acts stopped. However, if they feel that the criminal charge doesn't stop the violators, then the second phase of filing a civil suit comes into play," he says. The amended law also gives police officers and sheriffs enforcement more tools to work with due to the increased penalty.
"The laws have always been on the books," says Sergeant Shan Davis, Beverly Hills Police Department.
"It's the judicial actions that changed between penalties and possible imprisonment. Laws are designed by punishment. It's an enhancement of the penalty." Davis likes the new law saying it's a great tool to help bring a resolution to a long running problem. "There are already laws for stalking, surveillance, reckless driving and false imprisonment, but if evidence shows those acts were committed with a commercial purpose the penalties, including jail time and civil fines, are significantly higher than for Joe Citizen."
The new law changes the judicial action on the back end with the front end being the violation such as running a traffic stop, he says. The officer takes action. The back end is the litigation--when they go to court. "I've seen things that are amazing and frightening to me in the risks paparazzi will take to get a photo. Up until how it's been here's a ticket. They'll fight it like anyone else and maybe end up going to traffic school when they might have killed someone," he says.
Shaene Fanton, a paparazza who lives and works in Beverly Hills, owns her own firm and was once part of the pack that followed Spears. In her fifth year in working with paparazzi she doubts the new law will be effective and believes it creates an indirect prejudice against a class of workers.
"They (the thugs) have an entirely irrational mind set for any rational means of an end all," she says. "They are unfazed. I am all for cleaning up the field where as I said the thug types make for a destructive and challenging work environment as well as poor characterization overall that when assessed, applies to even those that are not of that type." Fanton, who is a political advocate for change, remembers following Britney in 2007 as insane: it was Princess Diana waiting to happen all over again.
"Anyone on the road gets cut-off, especially here in L.A. Blinkers are useless. Then of course you're inclined to try and get caught up. Other paparazzi work in teams, so it's teams against teams. This creates an aggressive approach to one of the teams working together to nix out the others so that they can keep the set (photos, videotape) as exclusive to them alone as an agency and therefore make more money. It's a street game with street rules and bullies run the majority and money runs the rest," Fanton says. "Taking a picture is not a crime. Whatever the content or context of a photo captured is not a crime. The way in which a photo is obtained, can be one. For this, I say the new law could be useful."
Continued (Part 2)
Co-authored by Carmela Kelly. Kelly is an investigative journalist and freelance writer out of Phoenix, AZ where she is the editor-in-chief of the Puma Press. She recently received a scholarship from Investigative Reporters and Editors based on previous breakthrough stories. She is a graduate of the University of Washington in public relations and spent ten years as a corporate recruiter. She has been studying the paparazzi, private investigation and courts of law the past three years. Investigative reporting is a second career.
Follow Robin Sax on Twitter: www.twitter.com/robinsax