Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How I was detained for taking pictures in a state park

In this little photoblog every so often I post a picture or two; with no additional commentary, verbiage, explanations, technical detail etc. It is just about pictures and whatever they convey and communicate (or not) to whoever stumbles here. No additional philosophy and context. But today I have to break this minimalistic format because of what happened to me yesterday (that "yesterday" was about 3 weeks ago. I wrote this the day after the incident and saved it for posting. I wanted to consult with ACLU which I just finishing doing today.)


* I followed a proper complaint process and in early November, 2007 I filed a formal complaint with a State Park District Office. It was received on Nov.8, and soon after I received a call from an Internal Affairs investigator for the California State Park System. We are scheduled to talk soon. Stay tuned...

* In early February (2008) I finally met with the Internal Affairs investigator. We went over this story again. Not much new to add at this point. Facts have not changed ;) I will report an outcome of this step. The investigator told me that the law requires that a decision is made within a year (!).

* May 1, 2008: I just received a formal response to my complaint. Key statement:
"Following is the disposition of our investigation:
1. Allegation: Government Code p.19572(m) - Discorteous treatment
Finding: EXONERATED. "

I am puzzled. I have not complained about a discorteus treatment. My complaint is about an unlawful detention. The resolution that I just received has not addressed my complaint.


I am aware of some irrationally negative attitudes towards photography and photographers, but I never thought that I would be officially, and possibly unlawfully, detained at a state park/beach simply because I was taking pictures. It happened on a nice Saturday afternoon (9/15/07).

Here is how it happened.

I take pictures of sunsets, hawks, surfers, skimmers, riders, dogs etc. As an example, here are shots from the last few days. On Friday I took a lot of shots of skimboarders because I was experimenting with new settings on my camera for very fast action shots. They were excited that they might possibly end up with good shots of their antics and I gave them my cards so they could contact me.

On Saturday I wanted to try different settings but there were no good skimmers this time. So I left my trusted rusty beach cruiser under a bluff on the Francis State Beach and I walked south and away from the main crowd. I took a few pictures (a set from today starts here ). Then I walked back quite quickly and taking only a few more shots, because I noticed that a local young surfer (John) was ready to go into the waves and I hoped that he could be my fast action exercise for today.

I picked a spot for photographing surfers and stopped. About 100 yards further north there was park ranger’s truck and a ranger with his companion were talking to a couple with two dogs (it is not ok to have dogs on this beach). When they finished talking and people with dogs left, after a fairly long moment the ranger and his companion slowly walked towards me. I was fiddling with the camera settings and I was waiting for some action; the bay was very calm, unfortunately. It was about 6pm.

I assumed that the ranger wanted to just say a hello, and indeed he started by saying “hi, how are you doing?”. “Fine”, I said. Then came predictable “what are you taking pictures of?”. I opened my arms wide, in a gesture “all and everything around”. “Nature? People?” – he asked again. Slightly annoyed I replied “Yep, and why do you ask?”.

The ranger: “Someone complained to the main office that there is a person on the beach that fits your description, taking pictures that make them uncomfortable”.

“Hm, taking pictures in a public place is not illegal. Who has complained and why?”

Ranger: “Yes, I know that it is legal, but someone felt uncomfortable and I have to investigate”.

“Who complained? Uncomfortable about what?” – I asked again.

Ranger: “I do not know. I only got that message from the (Park) office”.

OK, I said, “but I am doing nothing illegal and if someone has a problem they should talk to me.”

Ranger: “I know that you are not doing anything illegal but perhaps it is uncomfortable for them to approach you”.

At that point I felt that this is going to go round and round, so I again said that I am doing nothing illegal or improper, and then I reached into my camera bag and took out a folded copy of “The Photographer’s Right”. In fact, this was the first time that I actually felt compelled to give it to any official.

I said, “I know that there is confusion about photography, privacy and rights, so please read this, in your spare time”. He asked “what is this?”, and I said “good information of photography rights”. He did not open the page, just put it in his pocket.

I thought that he satisfied his curiosity and we were done. I was aiming at the surfers but I was too thrown off at this point to bother taking pictures. I just wanted them to stop bothering me and leave. Instead, he started again:

“May I see your pictures?”

That stopped me cold. He had no reason and no right to make this demand. So in as calm voice as I could muster I simply said No.

After a moment I said:

- Am I free to go?
- No.

That really surprised me. I did not expect to hear “no” because I did not expect that a ranger really had a legitimate reason to detain me. Especially after twice agreeing with me that I was doing nothing illegal. Therefore, I immediately asked:

- Am I detained??
- Yes.
- On what grounds? – I asked.
- For investigation.

Given his detention order I turned to him and I said: “I do not see a police badge on you. Are you a police officer so that you have a right to detain me?” He said that indeed this is the case because he is a peace officer and has the same priviliges as police. I did not argue since I felt that he is probably not foolish enough to impersonate a police officer since that would be a real crime.

This suddenly became a real case of “your rights while stopped for questioning and formally detained”. So now I just stood there still looking at the ocean, saying nothing and waiting what he is going to do next. I decided that I would say nothing or did nothing to give him any cause for further action. I already made a mistake of having an informal chat with him and I foolishly assumed that the first part of conversation was the end of it.

The Ranger: “do you have a driver license or any identification?” “No”. "I am on my bike" I added, probably unncessarily. I indeed had no ID, and besides that he had no formal reason to demand any ID (I was not in a car).

“What is your name?”,“....”, “how do you spell that”.. “ I knew that at this point (after being formally detained) I had to answer this question.

“What is your birthday? “

Here I paused again - I was not sure whether legally I had to give him anything more than my name. After a few seconds of deciding whether I want to aggrevate the situation or end it, I decided to give him my birthday. I was pretty sure that he would have to let me go, so I did not want to make it harder than necessary.

But at that point I also decided that this is getting formal so I said: “Given this exchange we just had I need your name too. Do you mind?”. So I wrote it down from the stencil on his shirt.

I turned to his companion and I asked "should I get your name too?" He answered - "No, I am just riding along...", so I did not press it further. However, now I am not sure whether I should have allowed him to listen to my name/DOB; on the other hand, it is not bad to have a witness.

At that point the Ranger asked me this question: “are you on probation or parole?”

I felt so surprised by this question so I said nothing for a few seconds and finished writing his name very slowly on a piece of paper. He repeated the question. Again I thought whether I should refuse to answer any questions which will give him reason to question me more, or just say ‘no” as an answer to his question, which I did.

Now, after further thought I realized that after he detained me I should not have answered any more questions at all, other than to give him my name. I am still not sure about my birthday.

Such conversations are really slippery. Nothing prepares for them. I guess this was a good exercise. If I ever get stopped again I think I will be smarter and I will say even less, and I will be on guard much much more. Sad.

The Ranger said “Wait here” and walked away a few steps to talk on his radio – probably to check a big datacenter somewhere for everything about me. Since I had nothing else to do, I took a few shots of him and his companion. I wanted to have a record of being detained against my will. A close up shows his badge: “California State Park Peace Officer”.

I was not worried but I was (and still am) quite disgusted and annoyed by this whole event. I felt and I feel violated by this whole event. There was no grounds for all this. In fact, now, after thinking about all this, I am not even sure he actually had anyone reporting anything. He did not seek me on the beach. It was a coincidence that I walked across the whole stretch of the beach to a spot near him. He was talking to people with dogs. After he was done with them he walked towards me, but not rushed, and not even immediately. This feels more and more strange now.

Anyway, he came back after finishing his call and said: “OK”. I said slowly “OK.. so are we done?” He said “yes”. (I should have simply repeated “am I free to go?”).

And then he said: “I apologize for this but I had to investigate, especially after you refused to answer my question about probation/parole”. Which was not true – I did not refuse, I thought about legality of his question and my answer, and then I answered. And what’s worse he detained me not after that question but before, and after I refused to show him my pictures. This might constitute an unlawful detention.

They started walking toward their truck and I suddenly thought about the information he took from me, so I followed him again, and asked about it. He said that he will do nothing with it, and as a proof took the card with my name and tore it into pieces. “But you called the central office” I said; he responded that they do not keep records. Well, I guess I will find out. I also plan to find out whether I was possibly subjected to an unlawful detention.

Conclusion - when confronted (over your photography or not) be prepared. Know and exercise your rights.

ps: i started a thread on this incident in PhotoPermit.org

pps: Nov 6'08:
I noticed something interesting. Since filing my complaint, almost every month, at the beginning of a month, someone from ca.gov (U.S.Government) domain comes here and visits several pages. Here is the latest:

Domain Name
ca.gov ?(U.S. Government)
IP Address 134.186.102.# (Teale Data Center)
Continent : North America
Country : United States
State : California
City : Sacramento
Lat/Long : 38.5765, -121.4445
Language English (U.S.) en-us
Operating System Microsoft WinXP
Browser Internet Explorer 7.0
Nov 6 2008 1:52:34 pm
Visit Length 4 minutes
Page Views 8

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