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Back in the 1990s, when I was a federal prosecutor, there were several television dramas that tried, and badly failed, to capture life as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. Actual AUSAs viewed them with a mix of disgust and hilarity. The most ridiculous of the lot was the failed David Caruso vehicle Michael Hayes, in which Caruso (who had not yet mastered the trick of capturing viewers' attention by donning and removing his sunglasses repeatedly) played an AUSA who liked to borrow guns from federal agents and tag along with them on search warrants. The very notion was ridiculous, of course, because real federal agents would never let an AUSA tag along on a search warrant. An AUSA might get in the way by suggesting that agents seize things actually listed in the search warrant approved upon probable cause by a federal magistrate, and interfere with the agents' natural inclination to haul away a mostly random array of unexamined boxes of documents and shiny objects.

There were many entertaining moments. I remember one in which the fictional U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who had immersed herself personally in a penny-ante Mann Act case, decided she needed to go see a witness out of state and snapped "GET MY GULFSTREAM WARMED UP!" This caused the actual U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, a notably refined lady, to laugh so hard that soda came out her nose. But the popular pick for best moment of the series came when Caruso, wearing the perpetually morose expression that naturally results from taking career advice from McLean Stevenson, tagged along with FBI agents to make the episode's climactic arrest, dashed in front of them to reach the bad guy first, and gravely intoned "You're under arrest for violation of TITLE 18!"

Title 18 is, of course, that portion of the federal law addressing federal crimes and federal criminal procedure. It's roughly the equivalent of a state cop saying "you're under arrest for violation of Penal Code!" We laughed at the ridiculousness of it. It became a catchphrase in the office. ("OK, next case. What's the charge on this one?" "TITLE 18!!") We all knew some pretty thick federal law enforcement, but nobody with a badge, lawyer or cop, is actually that much of a buffoon.

Right?

Wrong.

Via Radley Balko, who along with Carlos Miller is at the forefront of documenting and criticizing lawless and ignorant law enforcement hostility towards public photography, I ran across this story about the prevalence of law enforcement hostility towards photography:

Local photographers are also testing trouble spots, especially outside federal buildings, many of which are guarded by the Federal Protective Service, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security that has 1,225 officers and 15,000 contract guards to secure more than 9,000 buildings nationwide.

Erin McCann of the District elicited laughter at a congressional hearing last fall when she described an encounter with an FPS officer at the Transportation Department headquarters in Southeast. The officer told her it was illegal to photograph federal buildings. When McCann asked what law stated that, the officer cited Title 18 of the U.S. Code. Title 18 is the name of the entire body of U.S. criminal law.

Life imitates art. And not, unfortunately, just great art.

Law enforcement would have you believe that cameras are dangerous and justify their intervention. Either it's because a camera could be a high-tech weapon, or because they get folks all het up:

Police officials say officers who seek to stop photography are driven by safety concerns and the fact that the presence of a camera can spike emotions.

"When people see a camera, they get more into it," said Marcello Muzzatti, president of D.C. Lodge No. 1 of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 11,000 officers in more than 100 D.C. and federal agencies. "Some people will figure, 'I have a right to take pictures,' and we are not arguing with that. An officer also has a right to his or her safety and to control the situation."

In fact, it's rather clear what the true law enforcement objection is. Tape recorders, video cameras, and camera-phones infringe upon a cherished and long-held law enforcement right, one that is essential to good order: the right to lie about their encounters with the populace with impunity and without contradiction.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

9 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Jag  •  Jul 30, 2010 @3:16 pm

    I'm a big fan of Miller's Blog. It is incredibly scary to watch him document our eroding rights.

  2. Mannie  •  Jul 30, 2010 @6:13 pm

    ‘I have a right to take pictures,’ and we are not arguing with that. An officer also has a right to his or her safety and to control the situation.”

    Typical canned Cowardly Cop argument. Society isn't here to make life safer for cops.

  3. David  •  Jul 30, 2010 @6:20 pm

    At least the attorney general of Maryland seems to have a clue.

  4. Jdog  •  Jul 31, 2010 @12:38 pm

    More and more, I'm thinking that a iPhone (or equivalent) running Qik is just plain good sense. (The offsite storage obviates the problem of grabbity folks deciding to 'secure the evidence').

  5. Paul Baxter  •  Jul 31, 2010 @6:56 pm

    Ever see the film "The Last Days of Disco"? One of the characters is an ADA. His climactic moment in the film is being able to issue the order, "book this clown."

    Since it was a film he was, of course, accompanying some officers on an arrest warrant.

  6. Linus  •  Jul 31, 2010 @11:42 pm

    “Some people will figure, ‘I have a right to take pictures,’ and we are not arguing with that. An officer also has a right to his or her safety and to control the situation.”

    I'm sorry, this is a ridiculous non sequitur. What in HELL does someone continuing to hold on to their own fucking camera have to do with the officer's safety? And even if it were true that an officer has the right to "control the situation", whatever the fuck that means, again, what does that have to do with a photographer?

    It looks like this jerk was unintentionally honest though. He WASN'T arguing with that right. They are just flat out ignoring it.

  7. Federale  •  Aug 2, 2010 @12:51 pm

    An AUSA might get in the way by suggesting that agents seize things actually listed in the search warrant approved upon probable cause by a federal magistrate, and interfere with the agents’ natural inclination to haul away a mostly random array of unexamined boxes of documents and shiny objects.

    LOL, you just don't understand, we are like squirrels, pack rats, and other furry creatures. We are especially attracted to the boxes because there "might" be something relevant in that box full of magazines. That is where I would hide proof of my crime.

    Also, AUSAs tend to shoot themselves in the foot when running with guns.

  8. James H  •  Aug 31, 2010 @6:20 pm

    Quick thought:

    I saw an incident out of (I think) Washington state recently where the police (who'd had a recent negative encounter with photography) didn't tell the photographer to put away the camera or try to confiscate it. Instead, they told him to stand back while filming (sensible, IMO), and afterward the police ASKED if they could have a copy of the video and ASKED if it was going to go onto YouTube … and they asked for the photographer's channel so they could find it.

    Quite sensible, IMO.

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