Monday, July 14, 2008

Tennessee man arrested for "unlawful photography" after photographing cop on public highway

This is disgraceful:
A Tri-Cities area man ended up behind bars after snapping a [photograph] of a Johnson County sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop. ...

A Johnson County sheriff’s deputy arrested Scott Conover for unlawful photography.

“He says, 'You took a picture of me. It’s illegal to take a picture of a law enforcement officer',” said Conover.

Conover took a picture of a sheriff’s deputy on the side of the road on a traffic stop. Conover was stunned by the charge.

“This is a public highway,” said Conover.

And it was not a place where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy as Tennessee code states. The deputy also asked Conover to delete the picture three times.

“He said if you don’t give it to me, you’re going to jail,” said Conover.

The officer claims he initially thought the man's camera -- an iPhone, as it happens -- was a laser pointer, which is ridiculous on its face (as the article notes, "there is no flash or any light that comes from the phone that could be mistaken for a laser"), and in any event cannot explain the officer's demand that the man delete the photos, nor the blatant, illegal abuse of power entailed by accompanying that demand with a threat of arrest.

What makes this case even more galling is that, in most cases, the officer's bullying tactic would work: I imagine that 90% of people would accede to the cop's unlawful, unjustified, and possibly unconstitutional demand, rather than fight it. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if his wife and kids, and maybe even he himself, are (or were) sitting there thinking, "Why didn't you just delete the stinkin' photo?" I can easily imagine myself in the same situation, with Becky saying something similar. After all, it's such a small thing, isn't it? Just delete the silly photo, and all your troubles will go away!

But it isn't a small thing! Not at all! It's a matter of high principle in a nation of laws. Police officers are supposed to enforce the laws, not invent them to persecute people they're annoyed with. And they certainly aren't supposed to arrest people -- on trumped-up charges like "disorderly conduct," natch -- for refusing to obey the officers' invented "laws."

As one local blogger
puts it, "Refusing to delete pictures taken from a public area isn’t disorderly. It’s asserting one’s rights." Indeed. (I've pointed out before that charges like "disorderly conduct" and "disturbing the peace" are often used as catch-alls to punish legal, and in many cases constitutionally protected, activities. This is a classic example of that.)

The above-quoted local blogger, "DeMarCaTionVille," goes on:

What happened seems clear to me: Conover annoyed the cop by taking his picture. When Conover refused to delete them, the cop got angry and arrested him. (After all, the photos might have been taken with the intention of policing the police - and how dare a mere mortal citizen do this?) After the arrest, the officer scrambled to find some law, any law which would back up his actions.

Conover heads to court on August 6th - and I imagine the charges will be dismissed. The department surely knows all Hell will break loose if they’re not - but is this good enough?

Absolutely not. If this officer is not fired, or at the very least severely disciplined (and required to go through some sort of citizens'-rights training), it's an absolute, intolerable outrage. There is no excuse -- none -- for officers of the law to behave in this sort of illegal, bullying, rights-trampling fashion. As a free society, we simply cannot tolerate it.

It's not just about the ability for citizens to take pictures of police officers in public places (though that's important too; see: King, Rodney). It's about the officer's behavior -- specifically his attempt to bully this man into compliance with an illegal demand, using his power as an officer of the law in the service of his personal pique, at the expense of the citizenry that he is supposed to "serve and protect." It is absolutely, totally and completely unacceptable for police officers to use the authority conferred by their badges to violate people's rights in this manner, and society needs to send that message loud and clear.

Moreover, because citizens will usually back down, allowing the police to get away with this sort of thing in most cases, it is essential that these misdeeds not go unpunished when the perp -- meaning the police officer, of course -- actually gets caught. As InstaPundit says, "Examples need to be made."

P.S. Michael Silence writes, "
'Unlawful photography' in a public place? I don't think so. Memo to cop: Get a good civil attorney. Memo to the town of Mountain City: Are your liability premiums paid up?"

UPDATE: I've posted another lengthy post on this topic, including the following crucial detail that I failed to note initially:
[O]fficial statements by Officer McCloud and Officer Lane (PDF) confirm statements by the photographer, Scott Conover, that Officer McCloud demanded that he delete the photo. This is excellent news, as it eliminates any chance of McCloud relying on the obviously-bogus "I thought it was a laser pointer" defense. (What -- was he asking Conover to delete a photo from his laser pointer?) ...

[T]here is no possible universe of facts, even under the most irrationally charitable of interpretations for Officer McCloud, in which it could ever have been remotely acceptable for him to demand, on pain of imprisonment, that the photo be deleted. If Officer McCloud honestly thought, due to legal ignorance or heat-of-the-moment misjudgment or what have you, that the photo was either contraband (i.e., illegal in itself) or evidence of a crime, then deleting it would constitute destruction of evidence. And if the photo was neither contraband nor evidence, then by definition, the police obviously had no right to seize it or otherwise make any demands about it. So, no matter how you frame the issue, McCloud can't win.
Read the whole thing.

UPDATE 2: I've posted yet another detailed update on this case, including a link to another blog that has published the photos in question, along with a more detailed account by Conover of what occurred. Again, read the whole thing.