Feb 112013

Owen Courreges

I really just wanted to write a fluff column about parking during Mardi Gras.  That’s all.  The message was going to be: “Don’t park too close to the corner because it cuts visibility and causes accidents, particularly in times of high traffic.”

Instead, I’m going to write about how easy it is to fall victim to police misconduct, particularly when taking photographs in public.

It was last Thursday and the Muses Parade was rolling.  I was coming back to use my bathroom when I arrived at my intersection to see a bicyclist, who had evidently been struck by a Yellow Cab.  He was being attended to by several bystanders and appeared to be moving, although he’d taken a nasty hit – the windshield of the cab was smashed on the passenger side.

I avoided the scene at first and went back to my house on the far corner.  After using the facilities I ventured out again and spoke to another bystander about what had happened.  Based on the scene, it appeared that the bicyclist had been proceeding southbound on the left side of Josephine Street and come out from behind an SUV parked almost flush with curb on the westbound lane of Prytania.

I’m no traffic expert, but although it appeared that the bicyclist lacked right-of-way and had been proceeding illegally against traffic on the left side, a major cause of the accident was the illegally parked SUV.  With the SUV parked there, visibility was nil.  With proper visibility, the cab probably would have had time to stop, or the bicyclist could have seen the cab and not proceeded.

Parking too close to the intersection and blocking visibility, particularly with larger vehicles like SUVs, can turn run-of-the-mill traffic violations into serious accidents.  I’ve seen it time and time again at my intersection.

(Photo by Owen Courreges)

That was going to be the main thrust of my column, I thought.  It’s a good, timely topic.  As I watched the scene from a distance, the bicyclist (who appeared alert and lucid) was attended to by paramedics and taken away in an ambulance.  The police took statements from the parties involved and then retreated into their police car to finish their report.  The bicycle had been positioned upside-down next to the cab and in front of the illegally-parking SUV.

This was a great photo opportunity.  The picture of the bicycle alongside the damaged cab with the SUV blocking visibility in the background perfectly illustrated my point about parking scofflaws.   Accordingly, I whipped out my cell phone camera and moved forward to take a quick photograph.  As the photograph on the right shows, I stayed a distance away from the cab and the bicycle.

As I walked forward with my camera, the Yellow Cab driver and an older man who arrived on the scene later who had been speaking with the cabbie were to my immediate left.  As I raised my cell phone to take the photo, the older man leaned in front of me and tried to use his hand to block my phone.  He then began yelling at me, asking why I was taking a photo.  I responded that he had no right to physically impede me and it was a public space.

As he continued to rant, the old man gestured to one of the New Orleans police officers in the nearby cruiser.  Given his aggressive behavior, I had hoped they would back me up.  Instead, a female officer barked at me: “THIS IS A CRIME SCENE! BACK AWAY TO THE CORNER.”

And so I did, immediately.  At this point, of course, the police were not maintaining a crime scene.  People were walking through the area willy-nilly and there were no officers investigating.  Still, I had actually gotten my photo and wanted to avoid any trouble, so I backed up and watched.  I watched as the police finished up their report while dozens of people walked through closer to the scene than I had.  I watched as the police directed the cab to leave, put the bicycle in their trunk and drove off, never investigating further.  “Crime scene” my fanny.

It’s clear to me that the older man thought I was a taking the cabbie’s photo, and he didn’t like that.  In fact, I didn’t even believe the cabbie was responsible for the accident in the least and had no desire to snap a shot of him.  Thus, it was wrong for his cohort to aggressively try to block my shot and shout at me.  In legal parlance, it was tumultuous conduct.  His actions were provocative; he should have simply left me alone.  Nevertheless, the police viewed me – the innocent shutterbug – as being the problem, and ordered me to step away on a pathetically flimsy pretext.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I understand that it is illegal to interfere with a police investigation, but I wasn’t interfering with anything.  Police who are sitting in a car and wrapping up an accident report are not being interfered with when somebody snaps a photo.

The problem is the attitude of police toward photography and filming.  For some reason, the police often to use any pretext to keep people from simply recording in public, particularly when it involves their conduct.  In 2011, during the NOPD breakup of the Krewe de Eris parade, observer Ritchie Katko was filming an arrest.  He was then rapidly approached by an officer screaming “GET OUTTA HERE!” Within seconds, the officer slapped the camera out of Katko’s hands.  Marjorie Esman, Head of the Louisiana ACLU, responded by noting that “[c]learly, people have a right to film what they see on the streets.”  Apparently the officer didn’t agree.

The broken relationship that exists between the people of New Orleans and the NOPD is exacerbated by this.  Barking illegal orders at people on behalf of an aggressor is something criminals are supposed to do, not police.

It’s not just a problem here, either, but nationwide.  The web log “Photography is Not a Crime,” written by activist Carlos Miller, chronicles incidents from all of the country where people are harassed, attacked and often arrested for simply filming in public.  In some states, police have even used “two-party consent” wiretapping laws to bring felony charges against citizens for doing nothing more than filming their encounters with police.

In my case, I wasn’t filming or photographing the police, but nevertheless the police seemed to view my actions in taking a simple photo as provocative or disruptive.  This perception is wrong.  Photography is utterly innocuous.  It does not normally merit a police reaction, or a reaction from anybody, frankly.  Conversely, cars parked up to the corner blocking visibility are a hazard and should probably be towed.  Tellingly, the police were more concerned with me snapping a photo than an illegally parked vehicle that contributed to the accident.  They left the intersection as they found it.

I’ve often said the problems with the NOPD have more to do with prioritization than manpower, and this experience only enhances that perception.   I’ve said it time and time again, but we deserve a great deal better than this.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  28 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Photography is not a crime”

  1. Good Piece Owen,

    We all look forward to the day when irrational people that complain about photographers are scrutinized by the NOPD and the photographers instead are respected. Anyone complaining about their picture being taken probably has issues and it is sad, but not surprising, that the NOPD officer just wanted to pacify the loudmouth and abuse you with their typical BS.

    • H.J.,

      Thanks. When the Yellow Cab guy turned to the police I had hoped they would tell him to just leave me alone and stop making a scene. Instead, as you note, they chose to “pacify the loudmouth” for no apparent reason aside from favoritism or laziness. I’m frankly not sure which is worse.

  2. Claiming to be a victim of police misconduct seems to be a bit of a reach. The cops are busy at Mardi Gras, in an ideal world they would have addressed your petty concern and apprehended the old man that was aggressive toward you. Perhaps she could have taught him a lesson regarding civility. In the end they handled the incident, it remains a civil matter and other than you sense of justice you do not appear to have been harmed in any way.

    • jexni,

      How is it a reach? It is misconduct for the police to give an unlawful order; at the very least it shows a lack of professionalism (which is itself defined as misconduct). And nowhere did I say that they should have apprehended the man, just that they should have told him to back off, not me. The whole idea that because the police are “busy” that the rules should go out the window is ridiculous.

      In any event, the only reason the harm was minimal is because I retreated and didn’t escalate the situation by resting on my rights. If I hadn’t moved back, I may well have been arrested on the pretext of interfering with a completed investigation (while the police were in an enclosed vehicle) in a non-existent crime scene. Do citizens need to get themselves arrested whenever the police give unlawful orders, or can we please start insisting that the police do their jobs properly *before* it comes a false arrest?

      This kind of blase attitude is part of why things have gotten so bad that the department is about to be managed under a federal consent decree. How can somebody can live under a department where things have gotten to this dire stage and yet still argue for letting things slide? It is frankly beyond me.

      • Yellow cab and their underwriter pay the police to back the company up…..at scenes like this one, even to the extent of damaging the public record to the companies advantage..been the practice for years.

  3. Good for you, Owen. I am a photographer and have had similar unconstitutional encounters with the police. In a third-world police state a person can be, not only prohibited from photographing, but beaten up and arrested. Last time I looked, this country is not officially a police state. Remember the Rodney King case? Remember the Occupy Wall Street situations? As far as I understand the law, anything that happens on a public street is open to being photographed. You rightly commented on the illegally parked SUV (they always seem to think laws are not for them). But, at the same time, the bike person was equally at fault. Bikers seem to think that there are NO laws they need to obey. How many times have people been knocked down by bikers going the wrong way? There has to be a better term for these people than “scoff laws”. (Insert expletive here). Beware the police state.

    • best_in_show,

      I completely agree that the bike was at least equally at fault (at least based on what I saw; I’m only basing this on viewing the scene in the immediate aftermath). The bicyclist had a stop sign and was riding against traffic. The reason why I wanted to emphasize the parking issue, though, is because I’ve just seen so many blasted accidents at my intersection when cars park all the way up over the sidewalk, and the illegal parking seems to be the final straw that turns near misses into accidents.

      It is definitely true that it is legal to photograph and film in public, but police will often use other laws to squelch photography. The one they were trying to invoke with me is the law against interfering with a crime/accident scene where police officers are investigating. Here, it was plain to me that the investigation was complete; in any case, nothing I was doing was interfering and the officers were not exercising any control over ingress and egress from the immediate scene. Still, I’m sure they thought it was a plausible pretext for ordering me away. However, they shouldn’t be resorting to such pretexts. They should have respected my right to photograph.

    • Hi Best, don’t hate on all us cyclists. Those {expletive} Salmon are a menace to everyone who uses the streets. If NOPD simply made it a policy to call out on their loudhailer at the Salmon they’d catch on pretty soon.

      • Hey, Clark,
        Sorry…didn’t mean to hate on all cyclists, just some who never seem to think that other people are out on the street. As a 30 year veteran of cycling all around Manhattan, I was
        always conscious of my responsibilities on the streets. When I came back to New Orleans I was amazed at the lack of basic politeness from both cars AND kids on bikes. For that reason I decided to NOT acquire a bike for my own use. I am far too “chicken”.

  4. Thank you, again, for another thoughtful article. Speaking truth to power is something we seem to be increasingly fearful to do.

  5. Good points about the poponophoto policy.

    As for the cyclist, they earned those marks. Salmon swim upstream to die, and that cyclist made the same choice.

  6. Interesting comment concerning the relationship between the taxi cab company and the police (copied below) speaks to an experience I had – a cab ran a stop sign at a corner illegally blocked by a S&WB truck parked so crew could stop in McDonald’s – not official business – the cab hit the rear quarter of my vehicle – clear evidence that I was run into and not at fault. Upon arrival the police asked me a few perfunctory questions, then got the cabbie into the patrol car and had a lengthy discussion including a “speaker phone” call on a cell phone to ?? – I was then told that no citation could be written as there were “no witnesses” – as if I could back into the intersection and hit the cab! The duplicity of the police and taxi relationship was clear – since no ticket was issued, I had to deal with my insurance company suing the cab’s and many months later, I got my vehicle repaired – this was 2003 – obviously the corruption is still alive and well – despite all the noise about reform. The cabs in New Orleans drive carelessly without regard for the average citizen and get away with it due to this corrupt relationship – imagine beckoning the police as a private citizen to stop someone from taking photos – that is an added insult – the “crime scene” is the situation of preferential treatment – which is discrimination and a violation of civil rights….

    “Yellow cab and their underwriter pay the police to back the company up…..at scenes like this one, even to the extent of damaging the public record to the companies advantage..been the practice for years.”

  7. You are right this time, about the photography and about the danger of parking-to-corner,without regard for the difficulty this causes for driver’s trying to see to the corner. I hope you (Owen and the Messenger) will follow up the latter concern,especially regarding the way people (most of them parents and grandparents) park near schools,causing visibility problems for drivers and endangering children.Other people’s children.

    • Ralph,

      I frankly don’t know how to follow up on this more. The meter maids do ticket cars for parking too close to the corner, and I know they maintain a regular patrol in the area due to the proximity to Trinity Episcopal School. Part of the problem are people who only park illegally on the corner for very brief periods (like to stop at the corner grocery), so they’re seldom ticketed. I understand the urge to do so when there’s little to no parking nearby, but it is a hazard. And doing it during Mardi Gras is a thousand times worse because of the traffic situation and the number of pedestrians.

  8. Taking a photo is not a crime, but I hope at some point in this encounter you asked the officers to write the offending SUV a ticket. The SUV’s driver is plainly in violation of the law, whereas the cyclist’s behavior is harder to prove. I live in the LGD and bike down Prytania often. I have also seen many collisions of all sorts; traffic on the street is increasing and there needs to be better enforcement of the laws to keep everybody safe.

    • Roland,

      I hadn’t thought about that by the time the police ordered me away, and once they’d done that, I really didn’t want to risk approaching them. You’re correct, though; the police should have been asked to order a tow or at least ensure the SUV was cited. I doubt I was the only one who noticed.

  9. Pleasant,

    That is concerning. If you were that far through the intersection and the cab had a stop sign, the police should have cited the cab for failure to yield / disobeying a stop sign, or a least designated the cab driver as the party at fault in the accident report. It does smack of favoritism. Certainly in my situation I felt that the older gentleman — who I presume was associated with Yellow Cab — was treated in a familiar fashion by the police and was favored even though his behavior, not mine, was improper.

    • Owen,

      I have had only 1 experience w/ a cab accident that occurred in Metairie & in a parking lot so I’m not sure if this applies. The cab company involved immediately dispatched their insurance “agent” to the scene to inspect the situation. Because the accident occurred on private property the JPS assigned to the call really couldn’t do much outside of recording the accident. We received a check on the spot for the damages from the agent and called it a day. I can only assume that the older man was quite possibly there in the same role as the agent that appeared for our accident. I also can’t imagine that you were the only person taking photos of accident since everyone seems to be shutter happy these days, you just seem to be the only person caught in action so received the brunt of the discipline handed out by the NOPD officer. Officers can’t stop people from taking shots of areas that actually have crime scene tape rolled out marking territories so I don’t even see why you were spoken to at this point other than to quiet the squeaky wheel. I just hope the bicyclist is doing well and was able to claim his bike, because if it was just left in front of the SUV I’m pretty sure he’s out of transportation and a few hundred bucks for his trip to the emergency room.

  10. As anyone who has lived here for more than a year knows, basic American rights (and some human rights) are not protected in New Orleans (see federal consent decrees, current and former). It should come as no surprise to see an NOPD officer acting outside of the law or displaying unprofessional conduct.

    That said, the parking issue needs greater awareness. After a decade of watching accidents in intersections and rolling the dice every time I drive through one, it is my opinion that large vehicles (vans, trucks SUVs) should be prohibited from parking in the first or last spot of any city block so as not to obscure the view of other drivers. I believe this would be cheap to implement, reduce accidents, reduce injury, and reduce our insurance premiums.

    The divers of over sized vehicles (most, not all) tend to drive and park without much consideration for others (see Wholefoods parking garage). Unfortunately, inconsiderate action is one of our greatest rights as Americans.

    • chris,

      I’m not sure it’s really feasible or necessary to enforce that kind of prohibition on vans, trucks and SUVs. Many trucks and SUVs are actually fairly small, and in any case, the issue is mostly whether you can see past a vehicle parked near the corner, not over it. If we could just enforce the existing restrictions fairly and reasonably I think it would reduce accidents with less grumbling.

  11. You’ve touched on three of my pet peeves as a commuting cyclist and I have only a little to contribute. First, if you’d like to see a daily example of this “parking as accident creation” look no further than the corner of Napoleon and Coliseum. Every weekday, twice daily RTA handicapped transit bus’ make this corner a specially dangerous place. Second: vehicles requiring a professional driver; cabs, delivery trucks, limousines trash bin trucks stop several FEET away from the curb so they obstruct traffic. Now that we have cycling lanes, these professional drivers fully obstruct the cycling lanes. Unacceptable. During the SuperBowl I found cops extraordinarily helpful in educating these professionals. The problem of amaturely placed trash bins is easily solved by ticketing the offending company. Third: the name of these “scofflaws” that ride their bikes upstream is “Salmon”. They endanger everyone who uses the road. As I mentioned earlier when posting from my bride’s computer. Salmon swim upstream to die.

    What more could we possibly ask the UM to do on this? We’ve identified several issues that are non-trivial, and should be easily remedied if people were made to care. I hope we will soon provide a PSA that touches on these issues as they affect cyclists. I believe in most of these cases, if people realized they were endangering others they would change their behavior.

    • Clark,
      Don’t hold your breath waiting for the change in behavior. We have to recognize that there are people who just-don’t-CARE.
      A selfish and spoiled child displays the same attitudes. Every corner has a clearly marked area that restricts any and all “parking”. Who do you think feels that those restrictions refer to THEM? There will be some serious and life-endangering situations if ever a FIRE breaks out in the French Quarter, for example. Stop signs? Not If I get there FIRST. What about the jerk with the cell phone and a dog in his lap? Do you think this person CARES about your safety?

      • Best, you are quite right. I’m not holding my breath on anyone increasing their awareness in my lifetime. I always ride and teach my kids to ride with the assumption that everyone behind the wheel of a car is actively trying to kill you. Since 1 out of 3 is busy texting while driving, it might as well be true. I’ve sent these comments up the flagpole, and understand that a new program educating children on Safe Routes to School will get em while they are young, and teach the rules of the road that so many in this city avoided while still getting a licence. Hopefully a voice from the backseat of the car will get Mamma to put down the phone and get her eyes on the road and save a life.

  12. Dude, a little perspective here: an overworked cop told you to get out of her way at an accident scene in the middle of a busy Mardi Gras parade night. Was it possible for her to tell, with all she had going on, exactly what you were photographing? Is it her job to ask? Or is it her job to squelch a possible confrontation between you and the man blocking your photo? You said yourself his action were “provocative.” I’m sorry if she hurt your feelings, but it hardly sounds to me like a Constitutional issue. I understand your larger point, but while you freely assess and judge the cop’s work (using your knowledge and experience of street police work?), you make no effort to see her side of the incident.

    • Bill,

      “Dude, a little perspective here: an overworked cop told you to get out of her way at an accident scene in the middle of a busy Mardi Gras parade night.”

      Since when was I in her way? Don’t make up facts and lecture me on “perspective.” She was in her cruiser with her partner finishing paperwork. I was not in her way in the least. As for the rest, police who are overworked are still supposed to do their jobs properly, just like the rest of us. And when you’re in a profession given legal authority to physically seize people, you have no room to make such excuses.

      “Was it possible for her to tell, with all she had going on, exactly what you were photographing?”

      Did it actually matter, legally, what I was photographing? I was in public. There was nothing there that was illegal for me to photograph. I just pointed out the ridiculousness of me being harassed when I wasn’t even photographing any person. So even if the police had corrupt motives – i.e., favoritism towards Yellow cab – the truth is that I wasn’t really at odds with them.

      ” Or is it her job to squelch a possible confrontation between you and the man blocking your photo? You said yourself his action[s] were “provocative.””

      Yes, it was her job to keep him from acting aggressively towards me. She failed to do that. The police are not supposed to side with an aggressor who is trying to stop another person’s innocent, legal conduct. It’s no different than if I had just been walking down the street and some random guy started yelling at me and putting his hands in my face. Why is that so difficult to comprehend?

      “I’m sorry if she hurt your feelings, but it hardly sounds to me like a Constitutional issue.”

      Again, if a constitutional issue was avoided, it is only because I didn’t stand my ground. Would you say it was a constitutional issue if I had said: “Officer, that wasn’t a legal order. I’m just here taking photos in public and not interfering with any investigation of yours. You’re just in your car writing up the report and there’s no control being exercised over the scene. I refuse to move away just to pacify another private citizen.”

      If I had said that, it’s likely they would have slapped the cuffs on me and taken me to OPP. Simply because I avoided that, you say it’s not a constitutional issue? Do citizens always need to stand their ground and risk arrest in the face of an illegal police order for the constitution to matter? You’re ignoring the bigger picture.

      “[W]hile you freely assess and judge the cop’s work (using your knowledge and experience of street police work?), you make no effort to see her side of the incident.”

      At best the only part of her side I “see” is that perhaps it was easier to order me away on some pretext than explain to the Yellow cab guy that I have a right to photograph and unless I interfered with a police investigation, they had no authority to order me away. However, the easiest path is not always the right path. If my conduct is both innocent and constitutionally-protected, the police should back me up and not some loudmouth sticking his hand in my face.

      Oh, and I don’t need to be a police officer to judge proper police work. As an attorney I’m expected to be critical of police conduct, to know what’s right and what’s wrong. This was wrong.

      • Owen,
        You know that it is never a good thing to interact with the police in ANY city. They gots the guns and da badge, pal.
        Forget about this “serve and protect” stuff. However, in
        my own personal dealings with the NOPD, I have had none of the problems many others report. Some of the cops in the 8th District, for example, have become friends. I have found that a gesture of support or even kindness will soften almost anyone….including the cop. When I was mugged not three weeks after moving back to New Orleans in 1994, all of the officers involved could not have been more professional, kind, and thorough. I was so impressed I donated a little money for some protective vests and cited the individuals in the department for their help. That first experience with the NOPD was so positive I had a good relationship with the cops from then on. But, believe me, I was not there for your encounter so I can’t make any evaluation. Perhaps you should carry a HD video camera around….just in case.
        With sound.

  13. Sadly so far from an isolated case, photographers worldwide are seen as the ‘soft-target’ –


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.