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New law jails paparazzi - now what? (Part 2)

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By Robin Sax and Carmela Kelly

Continued from yesterday (read Part 1)

Can you imagine the out of control, desperate, illegal, reckless and dangerous actions people may be willing to take just for a tabloid photo? Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a new assembly bill into law, going into effect Jan. 1, 2011, which addresses the issue of these crazed photographers (the paparazzi) who swarm celebrities in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Burbank, San Francisco, and all over the great state of California.

The new law will make it easier to protect celebrities, the public, and to prosecute these over-aggressive paparazzi and increase public safety. If the paparazzi zealous behavior causes an accident, the city is currently responsible to pay for the mess if their exigency causes injury to others. AB 2479, "Penalties for Violations Committed with the Intent to Capture Images or Recordings of a Person", addresses these issues.

Public safety inspires AB 2479

"Screen Actors Guild supported AB 2479 because we feel that it helps add extra protections around what is basically an issue of public safety," says a Guild spokesperson in an email. "While we are of course concerned for our members who are often beset by this kind of attention, an overwhelming media frenzy can also put the general public at risk. Our members support efforts that encourage greater attention to public safety and clear protections for people who may be exposed to these kind of risks."

Blair Berk, an attorney who has taken on the paparazzi for some of her celebrity clients, predicted in 2007 in a panel discussion hosted by the Los Angeles Press Club that something tragic was definitely going to happen, and it wasn't going to be to the celebrity.

"It's not going to be Reese Witherspoon. It's going to be the mother in the carpool who's run off the road as they are chasing Reese," said Berk in a Youtube recording of the public event.
"Carmeron Diaz speaks eloquently about this. She hears sort of a constant reel of tires screeching behind her when she's on the 405 or when she's driving to her gym as 15 guys in cars are cutting people off, slamming on their breaks or shoving somebody in the street to get a shot," said Berk who did not return calls for this story.

Three or four years ago, Hodgman, head of Target Crimes, set out with James Day, investigator, Major Crimes Bureau, Los Angeles DA's Bureau of Investigation, to investigate the paparazzi phenomena.

"We took steps to identify paparazzi and to explore their contact with the photo agencies they worked for and looked for a way to deter paparazzi from this dangerous conduct," he says. "We were concerned there would be a Princess Diana like tragedy here on the streets of Los Angeles."

Previous laws proved to be unsuccessful. Hodgman believes they achieved a measure of success in AB 2479 with stiffer penalties for reckless driving. He credits the Los Angeles City Attorney's office for initiating the law.

"Current criminal penalties are simply not sufficient to deter certain members of the paparazzi from engaging in reckless driving that endangers innocent bystanders as they pursue their intended targets," said the Attorney's office in its proposal to Gov. Schwarzenegger.

"When you consider that the resulting images can sell for tens thousands of dollars, paparazzi have no trouble paying existing fines and see these penalties merely as the cost of doing business."

In its proposal to the governor, the Attorney's office sought a special enhancement created by AB 2479 to make it a penalty for willfully interfering with a driver and following another vehicle too closely from an infraction, punishable by a fine, to a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in county jail and a fine of not more than $2,500. They also sought to increase the penalty for reckless driving from a maximum of 90 days to six months and a fine up to $2,500.

Frank Mateljan, Los Angeles City Attorney's office spokesman, provided a copy of the proposal. John Lovell, legislative advocate, California Chiefs of Police Association, likes the new bill and supported it. He says it differs from the other laws in that it is more ambitious and clearly delineates what's permitted and what isn't.

AB 2479 provides imprisonment, fines and includes up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine if the crime of reckless driving endangers a child or children's health with the intent to capture a photo, reads the bill.

Security pro creates paparazzi research site

While Burke, Paparazzi Reform Initiative founder and CEO, credits the DA's office for jumping in with reckless driving, he and an attorney referred by Assemblywoman Bass' office, crafted language to propose the bill.

Burke's involvement in pushing for stronger legislation began years ago when he was in business and working in the film industry. He got a called from a friend and spent the next eight years providing security to high end celebrities and moved into managing house staff, construction and property for them.

Over the years, he witnessed the advent of the Internet and an increasing invasion of privacy by aggressive paparazzi into celebrities' lives and that of their children digital age. He kept thinking that others would solve the problem and thought he could do something toward a solution in the future if they hadn't.

He established the PRI as a hobby in February 2009, but PRI soon required his fulltime attention due to strong public interest. He compiled a clearinghouse of research material to help educate the public and to push for new stronger privacy laws to restore "order to our streets and privacy not only for those in the spotlight, but for everyone." He says to him it's doing the right thing.

Assemblywoman Bass' office found Burke's website and introduced him to attorney Patrick Alach. Alach had been involved with previously legislation. He wrote "Paparazzi and Privacy" for the Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review, January 2009. The assemblywoman's office found the article on the Internet and contacted him for assistance on AB 524. Californians enacted AB 524 last year and holds news outlets liable for publishing photos taken of celebs who had a reasonable right to privacy.

Alach says he could talk about First Amendment rights and privacy "all day long." He's not into celebrities, but recognized a problematic environment involving privacy rights. He wanted to legally see if there was a solution when he drafted the article.

In 2010, he and Burke put together proposed language for AB 2479 addressing stalking, surveillance and false imprisonment and forwarded it to Bass. "What we have been doing is in increments. It's surgical minded legislation. We want to lobby for the best way to legislate without offending the First Amendment," says Alach.

"We're not trying to suppress content. We're trying to address what is problematic about the conduct of gathering it. Both Burke and Alach say the children of celebrities are at particular risk now are increasingly in the spotlight with the paparazzi sneaking around playschools to take picture. "It's a little creepy from a morality standpoint," says Alach. "Where are the photos going? We want to protect children from aggressors. If you're stalking and causing reasonable fear, that's not right."

Ron Williams, a counter-terrorism expert, founder of Talon Exec, a private investigations firm, and a retired member of the Secret Service, says, "Paparazzi who take pictures of small children are pusillanimous sycophants who see this kind of stuff as profitability. It puts children of celebs at risk to pedophiles and kidnappers."

Williams serves on the PRI's board of directors. His experience includes personally protecting four presidents and dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth as well as celebrities, CEOs and high network individuals at present. Burke asked him to join the board because Williams has dealt with the issues and security and has 23 years of experience.

Before AB 2479, he says, they didn't have any laws with teeth in them and they hadn't defined privacy. AB 2479 is more definitive and pinpoint."The law has to define what a paparazzi does to define violation. Does a person have the right to dine with friends? Does the paparazzi have the right to stand five feet away and take pictures? No. I don't think they do.

"I'm probably going to get flack for that but I think you have to provide permission," says Williams.

Former Spears' chaser wants criminal background check

Shaene Fanton, paparazza and founder of The Media Circuit photo agency, works in an environment where she too is exposed to violence, aggressive tactics, objectionable behavior and criminals. She wants to raise the integrity of her profession.

She founded Don't Hate Regulate, an organization committed to modifying "the misconduct and destructive activity in the field today." Fanton witnessed firsthand the chase and meltdown of Britney Spears "fused with the birth of a tabloid television program" fueling the need for more content. She founded DHR based on her experience in the pack that pursued Spears in 2007.

"It was a hard follow and an emotional one," says Fanton. "Britney was not of sound mind and as photojournalists (paparazzi) trying to cover this, we had to follow the craziness she created around herself, which only amplified not only the coverage but the activity she created and how and when, as she wanted it to be.

"There was compassion and frustration as you had to be in the moment, and make that compromise of her and your means to putting food on your table. "Unfortunately it's the dynamic of being Britney Spears the star that violates the nature of Britney Spears the person."

Fanton has posted fliers about her organization and mission to recruit others who want a better work environment. In October 2008, the year she formed DHR, she appeared alone at a Malibu town hall meeting and faced the Los Angeles Paparazzi Task Force. She proposed her vision of what she believes would create less criminal activity in the workplace, more legitimate employees and better employment law without adding more laws to the system.
She sympathizes with law enforcement.

"They got their work cut out for them, which is why law enforcement failed in the past due to the deterrent of footwork and investigative style tactics for proof. When the previous law, AB 524, was introduced, you would see police show up with a video camera to capture evidence and log collective information in their their database of "criminal activity" if say a crowd of paparazzi were outside a club where an A-Lister was partying. That didn't last."

Fanton recently submitted to digital fingerprinting and a criminal background in her application for a Los Angeles Police Department issued press pass. She'd like a state law to require all paparazzi to go through the same process and have the police department enforce all outstanding tickets and penalty fees prior to issuing the pass. She wants the state to require that these passes be visible at all times during work. Fanton believes this requirement would at least weed out paparazzi with criminal backgrounds.

"I can wear the tag and be less likely to be turned away from an event or serve as a stable means to get placed onto media credentials for events. It does not mean I won't still get told to leave if asked by police. It aids in different ways. But we all get treated still as the stereotypical paparazzi, and everyone, I mean everyone thinks you are TMZ regardless of badge or not when in public."

As Fanton presses for change she and others may eventually realize that some of her ideas are already in place by celebrities who hire private investigators such as Martell: counter-surveillance, identify paparazzi and gather competent evidence to build cases to deter individual offenders.

"No one is saying we want to get rid of the paparazzi," says Burke, "We just want to get rid of the aggressive ones."

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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.