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staying legally safe taking photos of illegal activities (graffiti)

T A , Jan 25, 2001; 04:34 p.m.

I am curious as to how a photographer protects himself from being associated with a crime, when one is simply documenting it. There are such photo essays, and sometimes tv news magazine segments where the cameras follow some illegal activity. What would happen if such a crime was busted, and a photographer was there? I would think that the Police would at least detain the photographer. But is there any way to cover oneself legally. I specifically would like to document the underground night life of graffiti writers. Also, although I'm in no way associated with graffiti (I don't do it), I know that if anything did happen, I would be more suspected being a young person, than an obviously older photographer. Thanks.


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Martin Francis , Jan 25, 2001; 06:35 p.m.

I didn't realise photographing graffiti was illegal. I have had many enjoyable trips through my local area photographing the more amusing bits of graffiti.

Perhaps I shouldn't have said that.

Martin Davidson , Jan 25, 2001; 07:06 p.m.

Presumably, the question meant, photographing somebody painting grafitti, rather than grafitti itself. Does this constitute being an accessory?

I would imagine it would make a difference if the act of taking the pictures in some way encouraged the law-breaking, but I am guessing here.

Michael T. Murphy , Jan 25, 2001; 07:07 p.m.

Think he means being present during the act, not after the fact. General advice, until you get more specific advice:

You will always be at risk. You need to try to distance yourself from the group, while still maintaining their trust and being an insider. An awkward balance.

Get press credentials of some sort - local alternative paper, school paper, or similar. (Not TOO alternative though that the police hate the paper!) I used to keep a business card of a local politician or judge with the same last name, just to make them a little more cautious (parent, relative?)

Stay clean, nothing to hide (drugs, etc.) on both person and car so that you are not nervous or afraid of a search. Keep plenty of film, portfolios, tear sheets, etc. in your car if driving. If you can dress slightly differently - more professionally, etc. - than your cohorts that might set you apart. Again a fine line, the people you are with also need to trust you.

Be polite, professional. Curb your anger or hatred - treat the police as people.

Look for discussions on WTO type activities on the web. A recent Earth First! article mentions videotaping of actions as desirable in case of police brutality - pepper spray, etc. Think your subjects may (rightfully) feel the opposite - that your film could be used as evidence. You may really have to be an insider. Learn your rights in regard to your film and activities, because you will be putting them at some risk.

Also look for info from WTO in Seattle on how police reacted to photogs. Two female college students who were videotaping from their car were pulled over, sprayed with pepper spray, called names and generally abused. They had it on tape, police were fired. But of course that doesn't help during the altercation ;>}

Look for a discussion on a writer who was busted with child porn - claimed to be writing an article about it, but the judge wasn't convinced. Fine line!

I was pulled over and surrounded by 5 squad cars and 10 police on New Years Eve last year during the pre-Y2K frenzy because I took photos of a power plant! Police were afraid I was going to blow the place up. They were pretty on edge at first. Later they were nice, polite. I moved slowly, tried to keep them at ease, showed them my work. Let them search the car. One officer came out and said "it's clean, lot of film" etc. - that really helped. They apologized.

At least they didn't give me some bogus ticket - like "headlight out" - to cover themselves. (Happened right outside a halfway house too - everybody gawked at what looked like a major bust.)

Don't get their adrenline up! Figure out what you want - not to be arrested, to be left intact - and let some of the ego reaction go.

Post pics. Good luck!

William Carter , Jan 25, 2001; 07:31 p.m.

I have to disagree slightly with the above post. As a lawyer and photographer, I believe that one should, consistent with their own personal safety, stand upon their First and Fourth Amendment rights. There is absolutely no way I would consent to a search of my car - even if I'm completely legit. The Fourth Amendment requires that, with some exceptions, the police have probable cause and a warrant before searching you or your belongings (or have your consent to a search). The police could of course choose to ignore your refusal to allow a search of your car or yourself and do it anyway, in which case I would consult a lawyer and sue them. I don't think one has to be aggressive about it - you can simply say "no, you can't search my car unless you're placing me under arrest." (The police can search you or your car if you're placed under a arrest as a search incident to a (legitimate) arrest).

Of course, you have to be smart about it - as a relatively young African-American male surrounded by lots of excited cops, I would move slowly, keep my hands visible and politely but firmly refuse.

You also run the risk, of course, of being arrested if you refuse to consent to a search and dealing with the hassle of getting booked, etc., then released (Police will often arrest first, then later drop the charge).

(Finally, none of this is intended as legal advice, of course. Just my personal opinion).

Sorry for the rant, but I believe that police often run roughshod over our rights simply because we allow them to do so.

Michael T. Murphy , Jan 25, 2001; 08:06 p.m.

> so that you are not nervous or afraid of a search

I agree about the rights. I didn't recommend consenting, but recommended that you know you are clean so that your actions don't provoke increased suspicion.

Then too there are times when the police will have probable cause, and you will be searched. Or not have probable cause, and you WILL be searched. Then the police may be able to "fabricate" probable cause after the fact. Stay clean.

> tried to keep them at ease, showed them my work. Let them search > the car

And sometimes I am doing (moderately) illegal things when making images - trespassing, on freeway overpasses, slightly disobeying police orders. Was true in this case.

I wasn't advising that you consent, but I did allow the search this time. Sometimes you don't know what you are going to do until you are there. I have made other choices in other instances.

Role playing, visualizing, and rehearsing can help you keep your sense of focus when it actually happens so that you don't fail to stand up for your rights (again reference WTO and related actions.)

I'd keep the photos, etc. even if you are not going to allow the search. In this case I grabbed them when we were standing outside the car waiting for "reinforcements." Helped to establish a rapport and keep them at ease.

Huey Stevens , Jan 25, 2001; 08:30 p.m.


Not to sound funny but right-on. Although I try to be as proffesional, none assuming and polite to the police in these circumstances as I can they will screw with you as much as they can without stepping over the line.

Case in point. A lady in a bar is a regular that everyone knows is a nut case. She shows me a ring on her finger. Latter ring disappears and I am asked to corroborate that I saw a ring. I was eating dinner and didn't know it had disappearred and that other people in the bar were implicated. The police arrive in full force for a $8 ring, nothing better to do. The African-American older sargeant was pretty cool, but the young aryan was pretty beligerent. They asked me for contact information, I told them that I wasn't going to give them any info, They wanted to arrest me, I held out both hands and said "Take me in". They didn't. I then asked if I was corroborating that I saw a ring or if I was implicated in a crime. After going around and around they said I was corroborating that I saw the ring by which time I replied, "then you can't arrest me can you". When the cops acknowleged that they couldn't arrest me, that's when I gave them my info.

I latter heard that while they were giving the lady a ride home she mysteriously found the ring. I tried with all my heart to tell the cops that the lady was plain nuts, they wouldn't hear it and kept telling me rip-off scenario after rip-off scenario. In short they didn't arrest me, but they threatened to and thats where the system has gone wrong. Here in Texas the cops figure they can do what they want with impunity. They hide behind the law knowing that it will cost you more to prosecute cops for injustices than it is just to let it go, which just re-inforces their attitude that they can get away with it. So I'm for anyone who will stnad up for their rights and pursue them if need be.

Donald . , Jan 25, 2001; 08:31 p.m.

Rather dangerous.......

I have read of more than one person getting shot at and at least one getting killed by gang taggers for taking photographs of them in the act.

Be careful.

Hassel Weems , Jan 25, 2001; 08:42 p.m.

Just so happens that my brother, who is a police officer, is staying with us this week. I asked him about your situation. He said that he didn't see how you could be arrested with the group if you were obviously not involved in the painting, just say you are a freelance journalist.

I agree with the other people here who said it wouldn't hurt to carry some evidence that you are who you say you are. Maybe you could have a couple of press passes from events you have photographed, or a copy of your assignment from a journalism class, or sample photos, etc. Don't dress like you fit in with the painters.

You may want to find a newspaper, magazine, or even online e-zine to give you some sort of letter showing interest in publishing your story. That way if the group does something beyond graffiti and they are busted with you there, you have some sort of real proof that your interests are only photographic.

Erec Grim , Jan 25, 2001; 09:49 p.m.

Concerning encounters with the police, consenting to a search of your car may be a gracious way of giving in to the inevitable. The law will vary in its specifics from state to state, but in some jurisdictions a warrant is not needed to search someone's person or car . . . as a practical matter it takes time to get a warrant, and the police must either release the suspect who would then (if guilty) get rid of the evidence, or detain the suspect until they can get a warrant. This assumes that the police do have probable cause.

Certainly some cops are arrogant SOBs; some are also fine people doing an unpleasant job. I have been detained by police and had my car searched twice in two different states. The first time the highway patrollman made me stand outside in the freezing Winter wind; he did not apologize after he satisfied himself that I was not carrying any contraband. The other time the cop was more professional, and I think my courtesy made it easier for him to do his job. I'm afraid most cops develop an "us-and-them"attitude, I don't want to make them hate the public any more than they already do.

For the record I, like poster Wm. Carter, am a lawyer. Nevertheless nothing I have written here should be construed as legal advice; but only as one photographer's observations.

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