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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Photos of Criminal Environments Wanted

The Drug Action Team has been given a project. Each person is to photograph areas of the county (streets, roads, alleys, parks, parking lots, etc.) where known drug activity, including alcohol consumption, exists. In addition, the members have been asked to photograph any businesses and outlets where illegal drug activity occurs, including carry-outs, bars, and mini-marts that sell drugs, tobacco, and alcohol to minors.

I assume all of the environments will be identified as problem zones where enforcement must be increased. The photographs will also be shared with all members of the Action Team as a means to establish proof that specific locations in Scioto County represent dangers to the public -- eyesores that cloak criminal activity, gathering places for addicts, and illegal business operations.

This photography presents some legal issues for those involved. For example, it is generally legal to photograph or videotape anything and anyone on any public property. Yet, even on public property, certain restrictions do apply.

Like many states, video surveillance laws in Ohio need to be interpreted through its wiretapping statutes (Oh. Rev. Code 2933.51-2). Specifically, any unauthorized interception of an "oral communication" is prohibited. While there is no specific law against video surveillance, its usage as a means to intercept an "oral communication" (e.g. video recording at close range with an audio track) may be prosecutable as a criminal offense.

Photographing In Public Places

Members of the public have virtually no privacy rights when they are in public places. The general rule is when you’re on public property (a street, sidewalk, city park, etc) you can take pictures of what you see. This means that you can also photograph private property (notice the guideline DOES NOT SAY “ON” private property) as long as you’re not trespassing to get the shot.

Basically, anyone can be photographed without consent except when they have secluded themselves in places on public property where they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” such as dressing rooms, restrooms, medical facilities, or inside a private residence. This legal standard applies regardless of the age, sex, or other attributes of the individual.

Photographing private property from within the public domain is legal, with the exception of an area that is generally regarded as private, such as a bedroom, bathroom, or hotel room. In some states, there is no definition of "private," in which case there is a general expectation of privacy. Should the subjects not attempt to conceal their private affairs, their actions immediately become public to a photographer using an average lens or video camera.

Photographing On Private Property

On private property, photography may be prohibited or restricted within an area of property by the property owner. Entry onto private property usually requires permission from the property owner.

At the same time, a property owner generally cannot restrict the photographing of the property by individuals who are not located within the bounds of the property.

Photography on private property that is generally open to the public (e.g., a shopping mall) is usually permitted unless explicitly prohibited by posted signs. Even if no such signs are posted, the property owner or agent can ask a person to stop photographing, and if the person refuses to do so, the owner or agent can ask the person to leave the property.

In some jurisdictions, a person who refuses to leave can even be arrested for criminal trespass, and many jurisdictions recognize the common-law right to use reasonable force to remove a trespasser; a person who forcibly resists a lawful removal may be liable for battery, assault, or both.

Photographers must remember that some jurisdictions have laws regarding filming while in a hospital or health care facility. Where permitted, such filming may be useful in gathering evidence in cases of abuse, neglect, or malpractice.

The Police and Photography

  • Police officers may not generally confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant. If you are arrested, the contents of your phone may be scrutinized by the police, although their constitutional power to do so remains unsettled. In addition, it is possible that courts may approve the seizure of a camera in some circumstances if police have a reasonable, good-faith belief that it contains evidence of a crime by someone other than the police themselves (it is unsettled whether they still need a warrant to view them).
  • Police may not delete your photographs or video under any circumstances.
  • Police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations. Professional officers, however, realize that such operations are subject to public scrutiny, including by citizens photographing them.
  • Note that the right to photograph does not give you a right to break any other laws. For example, if you are trespassing to take photographs, you may still be charged with trespass.

My View

While I understand the intent of the scrutiny of the county, I question the purpose it serves other than to reinforce what people already know. If the payoff of photographing illegal drug activity and common places where criminal behavior occurs is increased patrol, stronger enforcement, and prosecution of criminals, some of the photography could represent valuable legal evidence.

However, if the Action Team exercise is fodder for group discussion that is ultimately filed in a cabinet to satisfy someone's curiosity and goal statements, I wonder if it is worth the effort. Taking these photos does involve some definite risk to the photographers and the potential for them being charged with invasion of privacy. In addition, some business owners may resent this invasive approach to reform.

I think everyone should know the laws about taking photographs. Many people assume they are free to photograph anything anywhere during these days of camera phones and miniature recorders. Today, consumers sometimes confuse the convenience and the incredible numbers of such devices with unlimited, unfettered applications.

I believe anyone who takes these potentially incriminating photos should be willing to be identified as the author of the work. What good does it do to collect a portfolio of “bad environments” that stand without required information such as dates, times, locations, and verifications of photographer? I would hope people would stand behind their photos, not “pass the buck.” Would people actually testify?

In fact, at this time people complain about reporting illegal activity to authorities, and the authorities doing nothing with their evidence. Without the cooperation of Scioto enforcement, citizens see little need to call the law. Granted, enforcement has to follow definite rules and restrictive policies that hamper many investigations.

Yet, the “street of cooperation” runs two ways: when significant numbers of residents see laws being applied unevenly because of political and special interests, these residents lose all trust in the integrity of the agencies. Some even fear they will be blamed for “sticking their noses” where they shouldn't. So, they have become conditioned to do nothing. I don't have to explain further how these things deter good people from helping fight crime.

We do need a responsive public – a public willing to fight for justice, domestic tranquility, and general welfare. If the public needs to take photos to accomplish the attainment of these God-given freedoms, they should take frame after frame for this project. But, face it – it's not the photos that possess value. Instead, it is the outcome of taking the photos that holds the proof of the pictorial accessment.

Most of us can conjecture the content of the film before production. We know the establishments that ignore illegal drug activity. We know the shady people who deal in these places. We know the coverups of prominent faces who break the laws. We know the dark and secluded environments that need more patrol. We know the carry-outs that illegally sell cigarettes and beer to minors. We know the parents who allow their underage children to hold keg parties. We know the football tailgates that typically conceal alcohol and other drugs on school and public property.

If we want an album of these photos, let's snap the pictures. I would be willing to do so if I am guaranteed results for my efforts. Maybe agencies are willing to step up and give us that guarantee. Still, without proper cooperation, this album will be a joke – no more effective than those incriminating, disgusting stories on Topix. Are you willing to contribute photographs and stand behind your facts of attaining them? Or do you fear the system is broken?

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