Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies Detain Person for Taking Photos in Public Place

In the above video, Shawn Nee was stopped and detained for 25 minutes by Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Deputies for taking photos in the subway. The video is cut down under 10 minutes for YouTube time limits, but the full encounter is available here.

Shawn Nee is a photographers’ rights advocate and, while his encounter may have been set up to “bait” the stop since the video was up and running in a covert fashion, the officer clearly overstepped his bounds.  During the encounter, the officer concedes that he doesn’t know whether or not Nee has committed a crime but rather, has stopped him to see if a crime is being committed.

Near the end of the above video, the officer finally tries to explain a basis for stopping the photographer, and that such basis is grounded upon “reasonable suspicion.”  While arrests require “probable cause” that a crime has been committed, a simple “stop” may lawfully be conducted if “reasonable suspicion” is present.

What is reasonable suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is a legal term of art that has been defined by courts (introduced by the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio in 1968 – hence the term “Terry stop”) when establishing the boundaries of our Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.  Reasonable suspicion arises from facts and circumstances where a reasonable police officer believes a crime is about to be committed.  The facts or circumstances must be specific and articulable.  A police officer’s feelings or “hunch” are not enough to amount to reasonable suspicion.

Does reasonable suspicion exist in this encounter?

In my opinion, no.  I am basing my opinion on Nee’s representation that photography is permitted in the subway.  If so, then I see no help for the officer to support his reason for stopping the photographer.

If photography in the subway were not permitted by the “metro rules” as referenced in the video, I could see some support for a brief detention under a reasonable suspicion standard; however, I still think a 25-minute detention goes well beyond what is a reasonable period of time.

Likewise, if the photographer had been sneaking around or otherwise trying to hide from the police or get into unauthorized or gated areas, then reasonable suspicion might be present.  However, given the officer’s obvious bluffing about what he can and can’t do under the law and for public safety, I don’t think he has much of a leg to stand on as a basis for reasonable suspicion.

Closing thoughts and more links . . .

I thought the photographer did a pretty good job of not escalating the situation while still asserting his rights.  I’ve seen and heard of other encounters where photographers unload on the officers in an aggressive way, which can end up with the photographer going to jail for an “unrelated” disorderly conduct charge.

While he is an activist, I think Nee did a pretty good job of representing photography activists on a whole and not looking like a punk.  I thought his choice to remain silent was a wise decision and let the officer go on and on about all the things he was going to do to him by turning him into the FBI’s “hit list” and so on.

So, kudos to Nee for peaceably exercising his photography activism, which will go much further in promoting photographers’ rights than heated arguments that make both sides look bad.  And, LASD stands to lose its kudos on what looks like a violation of the Fourth Amendment with respect to Nee’s detention, which could potentially lead to a Section 1983 action against LASD and the county government.

There’s more about this incident from the original post on Discarted, also Thomas Hawk covers it, and you can increase the story’s visibility by Digging it here.



  1. Wally says

    You do have a right to photograph. You do hot have a right to set up a tripod in a subway, or a sidewalk, or any public venue without a permit! You cant block a sidewalk because you want to take a photo! Was the officer wrong? Yes but for the wrong reason. Stopping a photographer in a public place without a permit is the crime nothing else.

  2. Sony-Canada says

    Was US Marine and this is what i went to fight for this is Bu** Sh** this happend to me here in Canada but the guy back off when i told him i was a Disable vet and show my ID this COP went to far.. LA Cop have not change at all.

  3. says

    In America, the idea is supposed to be arresting people when they are committing a crime (or after they have committed a crime). Not when they merely have the vague potential to possibly commit a crime at some point in the future. Everyone has the equal possibility of one day planning or committing a crime. Does that mean that everyone should be detained, harassed, or arrested? It most definitely does not. Sensitivity to potential crime is certainly going to be increased in places perceived as high-risk terrorist targets, however, allowing that sensitivity to overcome and even violate basic rights leads us to a philosophical place much closer to fascism than the apple pie freedom and justice that America is supposed to be all about.

  4. Alan says

    While I sympathize with Shawn and support what he is trying to accomplish in general, I don’t think this was a good example of fighting for photographers’ rights or battling police harassment. It was a setup from the very start and while the officer was clearly pulling stuff out of his donkey, Shawn was doing his best to goad him into it. I carry my photographer’s rights card in my wallet like every other photographer who feels strongly about our rights… But I don’t like how this whole affair went down. There has got to be a better way to bring these issues to light.

  5. MJ says

    You are an idiot.
    The cop started by asking you a reasonable
    question, which you did not answer.
    “I want to know WHY ARE YOU TAKING PICTURES?”

    You started right with the
    attitude. I am a professional
    Cinematographer and Photographer.
    This sort of encounter happens
    to me on a regular basis, when
    shooting in public or publicly
    ambiguous places. It’s 2009, man.
    This is the world we live in.
    I’m glad the cop stopped you.
    He was doing his job.

    With an ounce of direct politeness
    and sometimes a display of my
    business card… both parties
    are on our way without incident.
    I tell them the truth…
    Artistic Intent and I’ll even
    volunteer to show them my pics.
    It’s about mutual respect and

    You’re whole approach shows
    you are a child out for sensationalist nonsense,
    not a proper expose of freedoms and rights.

  6. Joshua says

    For what it’s worth, the police officer was polite, the photographer not so much. I agree, the photographer is an idiot. You get what you put out. Period. People will respond depending on how you respond to them. Thank God the officer stayed calm, and did well. I’m betting he was hoping to get an opportunity to put a fist in your face.

    Thanks for the video^^

  7. says

    This isn’t an example of a photographers rights being stepped on – this is an example of a photographer being a wank and provoking a situation. I’ve been stopped a number of times in situations very similar to this. My first response is I’m an photographer (mostly for hobby) my name is …. do you wish to see my id or my business card from my day job or any of the photo’s I’ve taken in this area… see I’m not doing anything wrong and I’ve got nothing to hide. Most of the time after that I’m left alone – sometimes they want to see my ID rarely do they want tosee my photo’s. I’ve never been detained or harassed. (New York/San Fran/San Diego/Toronto/Vancouver) ps. never had to use my photographers rights card with this approach … ever – not even in NYC Subway.

    This fellow – although you can’t say he is being rude – is being challenging – less than forthcoming and in general a pain in the ass. I mean seriously – he is a cop – not some random person off the street – if he wants to see your ID – do it. Some people think cops are the bad guys – but when you’re in trouble / hurt /in danger / etc etc – who do you call – that right – the same fellow you’re disrespecting will also stand between you and some real criminal with a gun and defend you with his life. Quit being a prick

  8. Destroyer says

    Sorry Shaun. While I hate the law enforcement in this city, I have to agree with MJ. You are an idiot

  9. says

    When you go looking for trouble you will most likely find it and you did, We are post 911 and we all have to work together,because not working together was one of the reasons ie. cooperation between fed,state and local law enforcement agentcies 911 happened. You knew that taking pic,s of a public transportaion system would cause a responese,now ask your oh so smart self what has this provided our enemies,as in the proper respones to a police officer? do now know what not to do?

  10. JCH says

    I don’t get the accusations here of “provoking” or “looking for trouble.” How is taking a photo of a subway turnstile looking for trouble? If you lived in LA you would know that photographers are harassed all the time here – you don’t have to “look” for it. It just happens. And can I add that’s a perfectly legal activity? That’s the issue here – not the photographer’s attitude but a cop who is way out of line and doesn’t know the law very well.