Just before first light on a deserted street in Torrance, CA, Jim McKinniss faced a menace straight from a dystopian sci-fi story.
April 17, 2005
• 4:25 a.m. McKinniss, a 60-year-old retired software designer on assignment for a photography class, arrives and sets up his Canon EOS Elan with 100mm lens on a tripod on the public sidewalk, facing an ExxonMobil oil refinery.
• 4:40 a.m. A security car pulls up and parks behind him.
• 4:46 a.m. A Torrance prowl car zooms up the street.
• 4:47 a.m. The car returns, lights flashing, and parks behind the photographer. Another squad car jerks to a stop beside it. "Four cops walk up in a SWAT-type formation," McKinniss later recalls. "They weren't casual about it. Talk about intimidation!"
• 4:49 a.m. He is ordered to clasp his hands, thumbs down, behind his back. A cop grabs his thumbs with one hand and searches him with the other…
McKinniss has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Torrance, its police chief, and every officer present that night. The suit claims that when he was nabbed he was not a suspect in any crime, nor was there probable cause to trigger a search; it alleges violations of the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.
An assistant to the Torrance police chief says he cannot comment on pending litigation. But, he adds, "Obviously we have heightened concerns with certain locations within the city, due to the possibility of terrorism."
The lawsuit is still open at press time, a settlement conference pending.
Like McKinniss, both amateur and professional photographers all over the country are being stopped and harassed with no legal basis. As digital cameras proliferate wildly, so do attempts to restrict what you can shoot and how you can use the picture. And not all attempts to quash photography have to do with national security concerns. Some invoke copyright and trademark protection, others the privacy both of celebrities and ordinary people.
But you can fight back. Knowing your rights and restrictions as a photographer is a good first step. When cases reach the point of legal proceedings, they're usually settled in the photographer's favor, according to lawyers who have represented photographers in court.
However, sometimes your own understanding of the law isn't enough. According to his suit, when Jim McKinniss told the police officers that he was on public property and thought it was legal to photograph, "One of the officers asked if [I] had heard about September 11 and asserted that, since the terrorist attacks…it was illegal to photograph bridges, airports, and refineries."