Photographer says DC cops detained him

Photo courtesy of
‘Nacho #24′
courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

My pet project involves making sure photographers in the DC area are free to shoot without idiotic restrictions imposed by a sometimes-security-crazed bureaucracy. So it’s with some interest and outrage that I came across this blog post  by local photographer Jerome Vorus detailing an incident last Saturday in Georgetown. Vorus claims several MPD officers told him photographing people in public without their consent is illegal, said he was being detained, required his ID, and ran his name through a database before letting him go. Um, what?

Vorus writes:

I was told by 4 officers  that it is “illegal” to take pictures of people without prior consent on a public street, and unlawful to take pictures of the police with authorization from the DCPD PIO. That of course is false, in public people do not have an expectation of privacy.  I was also told that I could not “record people, you need permission first” and one officer was quick to say “you don’t have mine.”

If Vorus’ account is accurate, MPD is in need of some serious reeducation regarding what is and what is not illegal with photography. He’s right in pointing out that there is generally no expectation of privacy on a public street, and there is certainly nothing–NOTHING–in the law that would prohibit a photographer from taking shots of DC police officers going about their work.

Incidents like this are not rare, especially in DC where every government entitity seemingly has its own separate police force with an employee or two who just don’t get it, but honestly, I’d always figured MPD was one of the good ones. There are of course always two sides to every story, especially when tempers run hot, and I’m in the process of reaching out to the public affairs office to get their take on the incident. Vorus’ account is frustratingly short on things like names and ranks of the officers he dealt with, which makes a followup investigation difficult, and he doesn’t say whether he’s reported the incident to MPD officials or asked for any response from them. I’m a broken record on this stuff, photographers: always, always, always demand names and titles when someone stops you. Always.

How about you photographers out there? What’s your experience with MPD?

UPDATE: MPD Public Affairs Officer Eric Frost declined to comment on the incident Saturday afternoon.

Erin McCann

Erin takes pictures. Lots of them. And then she tweets about them.

24 thoughts on “Photographer says DC cops detained him

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  2. It seems like the only time this question is going to get settled once and for all, is when an individual refuses to comply with the police request, and accepts the almost-certain arrest as a result. While I’m certain that a court would favor the defendant in this case (so long as the individual is not belligerent, disruptive, disorderly or resistant), the unpleasantness of being arrested for legal activity would probably dissuade anyone from actually submitting themselves to such an action by the police.

    Our rights may be codified in the Constitution, but our resistance to those who would take them away is the only way they can be protected and preserved. Acquiescing to an officer’s unlawful request, and speaking out later, is not standing up for those rights.

  3. Thanks Erin for looking out for us! Keep us updated on and if MPD responds with more than a no comment.

  4. you should go to that guy has had so much experience with authority figures being jerks about photos or video recordings.

  5. So the MPD officers are either ignorant or lying. Either way it is not a good situation. I have been confronted by Secret Service details who said photographing things in public wasn’t allowed but never MPD. Eventually the Secret Service goons stepped down, knowing they were in the wrong.

    I’d love to hear the MPD’s side of this. I wonder if they got numerous complaints from passersby about someone photographing them. Then it would be justified asking the guy not to be a jerk but not to tell him he was committing a crime. That’s just plain wrong. And even if he was being a creep with a camera, that’s perfectly legal in public.

  6. Nisi, I’m familiar with Carlos Miller and his site, but I can’t say I agree with his attitudes or his approach to photographers’ rights. I’ll willingly admit that difference is based on wildly divergent experiences: I tend to see police as individual people who are capable of making mistakes (even systematically) that can be corrected; Miller sees police as an entity out to get him (largely because, well, with his experiences in Miami, they actually were). I follow his posts, but I always take them with a grain of salt and wish he would calm down a little bit and see things without quite so much indignance. But he’s earned a lot of fans and a lot of readers doing things his way. There are a lot of people in the photo rights communities online who agree with him and his approach, antagonistic as I may find it to be.

    But when I saw the connection between Vorus’ blog and Miller’s site, I immediately became far more interested in hearing the cops’ side of this story. That’s one of the reasons I was so disappointed at MPD’s unwillingness to respond or look into it in any way. If Vorus’ account is accurate, the MPD needs some retraining. But there’s another side to this that we don’t get to hear, and that’s a shame.

  7. My only really question is whether the photographer was too aggressive, too obvious; too in-your-face.

    The story recounted by this photographer was that he was super careful not to push any limits, and was not trying to provoke the police. I’ll take his account at his word.

    The cops know that ‘photography is illegal’ is a bogus claim and interact with still and film news photographers all the time. That’s not the issue.

    But cops — and most non-cops — are universally touchy about random people taking their photos on the street.

    They have no idea what you are about, what you plan to do with the photos, and are prone to being defensive.

    In any kind of street photography, the best advice is to be discrete as possible, fast and not too obvious.

    Taking random street photos has an element of rudeness about it and involves a measure of risk.

  8. It’s worth remembering that although photography may not be illegal in most cases, it also is not a right enshrined anywhere in the Constitution, and it needs to be balanced with people’s desire not to be stalked by random so-called “street” photographers. Some of these folks are really aggressive, and with the advent of digital photography and Flickr, there are more and more of them, and sooner or later, laws will be enacted to deal with it. Thanks for recognizing there is more than one side to the story (even though it’s unfortunate MPD doesn’t want to tell their side).

  9. Well, technically, Marlin, there’s this thing called the First Amendment. It’s in the Bill of Rights, and not the Constitution, but it pretty securely enshrines our right to a free press and free speech. Courts have firmly established that photography is an element of free speech that is not to be infringed upon, with very, very rare exceptions made for national security and privacy.

    I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with aggressive street photographers, because they really do make things harder for the rest of us. KOB’s suggestion that it’s best to be discrete, fast and not too obvious is a good one, but it’s also important to remember that your right to stand on a public street corner is just as valid as a photographer’s right to take your picture while doing so.

  10. I mean, *technically*, they’re separate documents. Wanted to give Marlin the benefit of the doubt.

  11. Um, the First Amendment *is* part of the Constitution, just like Articles I, II, and III. It’s not a separate document, technically or otherwise. It confers constitutional rights on the people and places constitutional restrictions on the State. Okay, persnickety lawyer PSA over. Erin is absolutely correct however that the First Amendment does generally give you the right to photograph people in public.

  12. maybe I’m old – I grew up during the Cold War in the 1960s – but we were always made not to forget about the differences between “free” and “non-free” (i.e., Communist) societies were specifically things like being able to take photographs in public. In Soviet Russia someone would get arrested by the “Secret Police” for taking pictures. Here, evidently, the only difference is that our police aren’t “secret”. But otherwise, what’s the difference?

  13. andy, I’m younger than you, but I had the same reaction for the same reasons.

  14. Im all for the first amdt and keeping the cops and gummnt out of the equation; but my rights as a citizen to reasonable expectations of privacy are as important as yours to take pictures.

    For arguments sake, lets say you are walking down the street with your 12 yr old daughter or grand-daughter and you see some random man taking all sorts of pictures of her. And only her. From all angles. But he thinks hes being “discreet” and no one is seeing him? What do you do? And what do you further do if he claims the first amdt defense?

  15. Just like you can’t stop people from having pervy thoughts about your daughter as she walks down the street, if you are out in public you can’t stop people from taking pictures of her as long as they are not obstructing you or invading private property. The “reasonable expectation of privacy” when you are walking down a public street is that in fact you have no privacy, nor any right to it.

  16. jimmycrackcorn – there are times when it is perfectly appropriate to cause a massive scene. Just because it is legal for them to take the photos doesn’t mean you can’t express your opinion. Whipping out your own camera to get their photo is good too.

  17. Could you please point to the Supreme Court rulings that support the claim that taking of photographs (vs. publishing them, which is obviously speech) is a part of constitutionally protected “speech?” I think that’s a huge stretch.

    The idea that street photographers like to promulgate, that you can have zero expectation of privacy when outside your home, is remarkably fascistic and self-serving. This may technically be the case today due to lack of adequate protective laws; that pendulum is rapidly shifting, however.

  18. Pingback: Update: DC photographer vs. MPD, take 2 » We Love DC

  19. You may not like it, Marlin, but it is settled law since at least 1953 that you have no expectation of privacy while in a public place (with the obvious exceptions being public restrooms and such). See: Furman v. Sheppard, Boring v. Google, Gil v. Hearst Publishing Company, etc. The list goes on and on. Here’s a good article on the topic.

  20. Hearing of this incident really frustrates me — mainly because I’ve photographed MPD officers hundreds of times, and have almost always met with a positive response. Generally, of all the police agencies in DC, the MPD and the US Park Police have long stood out to me as having officers well-versed in the legality of public photography and in the art of positive public relations. With that said, I don’t think this harassment issue is a widespread problem for MPD…but I do think there are plenty of other police departments and security agencies in the DC area that could use a refresher course on photography rights and hot to better interact with the public.

  21. This type of incident is a continuing concern of mine as a professional journalist. I’d appreciate hearing from people who have similar experiences. my address is

  22. Pingback: MSM Backs Photographers’ Rights «

  23. i’d only have one word for the MPD officers saying such silly things…
    ….paparazzi… and of course i would say it in my “best” lady gaga voice ….