Sunday, November 9, 2014

View from a scene


Columbia has lost a beloved icon – Mildred “Sis McPeat" Brown – as a result of last night's tragic accident on Third Street. More than anyone else, “Sis” embodied the spirit of Columbia – grit, self-reliance, and determination. She could often be seen around town, patronizing Stover's, or carrying bags of groceries up the highway from Musser's (which I'm told she visited every day). With 89 years behind her, Sis was a bridge from the past to the present, and many here will feel her loss.


I was saddened when I heard the news at last night's accident scene, so I don't want to inject the spirit of contentiousness, but as I was shooting photos and talking to people, a Columbia Borough Police officer approached and asked if I was affiliated with a Columbia website. I replied that I was, but in retrospect, I think he was referring to one of the Facebook sites. He suggested that I not continue to photograph the scene, because it was a potential crime scene, and that I don't publish any photographs for a few days, due to the ongoing investigation. I told him I had already posted one via cell phone and asked if I should remove it. (I showed him the photo on my phone.) He implied I should use my discretion, and suggested obliterating any images of the license plate number of the vehicle in question. I thus got the impression it was OK to leave the photo on, and I subsequently blacked out the car's plate number.

The officer said police have the right to confiscate cameras at such a scene and hold them for a few days until after the investigation, at which point they would be returned. He also said the DA has the power to hold cameras – and I think I understood him to say that the DA's office could extract photos from any confiscated camera before returning it. I told him I definitely don't publish photographs of accident victims, since doing so could be grounds for legal action, but I said I didn't realize there are restrictions on “crime scenes.” I previously researched the topic and found it is legal (with a few specific exceptions) to photograph anything that can be seen from public property - or even private property, if the public has free access to it. (In public there is no expectation of privacy. “Public” by definition is not “private.”) It is also legal to publish such photographs, as long as they're not derogatory or used for commercial gain without the subject's permission. Even though I considered the officer's “request” an exercise in “prior restraint,” I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking there might have been a recent decision I was unaware of - or some nuance of the law allowing for my arrest or confiscation of my camera.

I told the officer I would comply with postponing further publication of photos, due to his admonition and the sensitivity of the incident. I told him I saw Vinny Tennis of the Sunday News taking shots of the scene, and he replied he had seen him. (I think Vinny had left by that time.) I also wondered why no warnings had been issued to anyone in the sea of cell phones flashing shots of the scene, but I decided to comply and follow my rule of never challenging or interfering with personnel at a scene. Their job is hard enough, but if the scene was so sensitive, why wasn't it cordoned off several blocks away and onlookers barred?

I checked LancasterOnline for an update at about 10:30 that evening, two hours after I'd left the scene, and was surprised to see they had posted seven of Vinny's photographs of the scene (currently, there are nine), including one clearly showing the license plate number of the vehicle allegedly involved. Subsequently, I posted several photos from my camera card last night, as well as several more this morning, figuring if I'm charged, LNP will have to be, also.

So, was the officer wrong in telling me to delay posting the shots? Did he overstep his authority in doing so? Was he bluffing me? What was the motivation for singling me out? Although I can't confirm it, I suspect a directive originated from a West Hempfield officer at the scene. Unlike our officers, whom I've found to be personable, professional, and courteous, West Hempfield has often been overbearing and heavy-handed.

Unless there is evidence to the contrary, I still believe I had - and have - the right to shoot and post photos of the scene. I believe the First Amendment guarantees that.  Unless I receive an edict to remove them, the photos will remain.

3 comments:

  1. Shaking my head in disbelief. Everything you were told by this officer is incorrect.

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    1. I'm beginning to see that. I checked with an attorney today who said I was within my rights to photograph the scene. I feel I was duped. Worse yet, I was singled out, and I wonder why.
      In the future, I'll refuse ANY request to stop taking pics in a public place, and we'll see if they slap the bracelets on me. That could make an interesting blog post, not to mention a legal case.

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  2. Cole. This is Jesse from ColumbiaPaOnline.com. Let me know when your free and I will be more than happy to help you out with this. The police can not take your camera. By all means if they do, do not resist, but sue the borough.. Simple enough... The tried it for me a few times, and failed... You know your rights and if I were you I would publish as photo of this police officer... god forbid we have another Fergunson here...

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