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.