ACLU sues LA sheriff's deputies for detaining photographers

mikebaird/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A female photographer in Morro Bay, California.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Thursday accused Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies of unlawfully detaining and searching photographers under the guise of looking for terrorists

Thursday's suit was filed in a L.A. district court on behalf of three photographers, who have been detained or ordered not to photograph by sheriff's deputies on at least six occasions.

The plaintiffs say they were each on public streets when sheriff's deputies approached them. The deputies, they say, detained them, frisked them and asked why they were taking photos.

The ACLU represents three photographers, including Greggory Moore. The Long Beach Post reporter recently said Sheriff’s deputies questioned him outside the courthouse where he was taking pictures for a news story.

“I started to answer," he said. "I said is there a problem? And he said 'are you taking pictures of the courthouse?'"

From there, said Moore, the conversation escalated: "I said is it illegal to take pictures of the courthouse? And he said 'sir step over here.' The eight officers came around me in sort of a perimeter. I was told to put my hands behind my back palms together.”

Moore said the deputies told him they were making sure he wasn’t a terrorist. The ACLU says in other cases, deputies have ordered photographers to stop taking pictures. The lawsuit states the actions are a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment right to free expression and Fourth Amendment right to be free of unjustified searches and seizures.

Another plaintiff said sheriff's deputies detained and searched him for photographing turnstiles on the Los Angeles Metro, asking if he planned to sell the photos to al-Qaeda and threatening to put his name on the FBI's "hit list," according to a ACLU/SC press release.

“Photography is not a crime. It’s protected First Amendment expression,” said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the ACLU in Southern California, in a press release. “Sheriff’s deputies violate the Constitution’s core protections when they detain and search people who are doing nothing wrong. To single them out for such treatment while they’re pursuing a constitutionally protected activity is doubly wrong.”

The lawsuit asks that the court order the Sheriff's Department to stop the practice. It also seeks unspecified damages.

A Sheriff’s spokesperson said the department had no immediate comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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