Karl and I Get Our Rights Violated

posted 09/02/04

"Let me see your IDs", the second guard said, "right now."

"No," I said, "I'm sorry, but we don't have to show them to you."

"If that's the way you want to be," he said, "fine. Don't go anywhere; you're both under citizen's arrest."

"Really?", I asked, "what for?"

Quoth the security guard, with a great degree of relish, "Terroristic threats."

To understand this better, it's perhaps important that you get some background. Karl and I had been out, photographing the city at night. We'd previously tried to see if the police would stop us taking pictures of various bridges, power plants, and so forth at night, to find out if the rampant stories of police misconduct in the name of national security had any basis in fact. We finished - or so we thought - our informal test unscathed, but found that we really enjoyed wandering the metro area in the wee hours, getting wonderful night photographs and generally having a good time.

So here we were, at one in the morning, on August 5th, 2004, on the sidewalk across the street from United Hospital in downtown Saint Paul. The hospital's ambulance bay is made of backlit glass blocks, and it's very pretty, very retro-industrial. It's also nice to see something halfway tasteful done with glass blocks, you know? So we were trying to take pictures of it.

A security guard in a car had stopped us, and told us we couldn't take photos on hospital property without a permit. Sure, okay, fine, we said, and crossed the street, where we stood on the sidewalk and tried to take pictures from there. Alas, that was not to be, because the guard returned, and now told us we couldn't take photos of the hospital at all.

That's when the second guard, an old, grumpy fellow named John Chestnut, approached us from behind, and began playing twenty questions. What are we photographing? Why? Who do we work for? Are our cameras digital or film? Don't we realize we're on private property? Don't we know we can't make photos of hospitals?

We cooperated as best we could, until he insisted we couldn't take photos of the hospital. Why not, we asked? Is it copyrighted? No, he said, it's against the law. The Patriot Act, to be specific.

We politely argued with him, knowing full well he was wrong. He was stubborn, a bit of an ass, really, and then demanded that Karl delete his digital photos of the hospital off his camera, and that I hand over my film to him. Not a chance, I told him, he's got absolutely no right to make that demand.

That's when he demanded our identification, and placed us under arrest. Unlawfully, I might add. Karl told me later that I'd gotten a very scary smile on my face when the guard arrested us, a sort of "make my day, punk" look, and for good reason - after researching my citizen's arrest page, I'd say I know pretty much all there is to know about citizen's arrests in Minnesota. I knew then, standing under a streetlight in the chill summer air, that I'd just been unlawfully arrested. I'm not a lawsuit-happy guy, but, really, who wouldn't be slightly amused at the legal liability thus exposed?

As the guard seemed in no hurry to turn us over to the proper authorities - as is required by law - I demanded he call the Saint Paul Police, and he radioed for them. Yay, I thought, Saint Paul's Finest will soon set this uppity little twerp straight, and we can be on our way without further incident. As we stood there, waiting for the police to arrive, we were informed that Children's Hospital is a "Level One Trauma Center" and the designated decontamination center for Saint Paul in case of bioterrorism, and as such was protected by the Patriot Act. It's a different world, we were told, post-September-11th.

Shortly, three police officers arrived in three cars to deal with us. I don't know if it was a slow night in the Central district, or if the hospital made us out to be much more threatening than we were, but my heart rose as the good guys now outnumbered the bad guys.

Numerical advantage didn't do us much good, though. For reasons that were never really clarified, the officers sided with hospital security, and demanded we delete and surrender our images. The officer in charge, who I will only identify as "218" so as not to piss him off too badly, and who did all the talking, told us that federal law prohibited photographing hospitals, as well as bridges, power plants, the county and federal courthouse, the police headquarters, the county detention center, and other government property. Really. Somedays, you just can't get a break, so we deleted our images and handed over the film. We knew they were without grounds to do so... but we were the only ones who knew it.

Standing up for one's rights is all fine and dandy. There's a time and a place to pick your fights, though, and the middle of the night on a downtown streetcorner is not it. We submitted to the demands placed upon us, but it wasn't much of a victory for the hospital, was it?

As we were escorted to our car by two of the officers, in some perhaps well-meaning attempt at small talk, the tall, lanky officer gave us the same old song and dance about it being a different world we live in these days, said that common sense has to prevail, which was nicely ironic, I thought, and then went on to liken Karl and I to a fellow who'd caused panic at the federal building downtown by pointing a laser-pointer at a guard's chest from across the street, with predictably panic-stricken results. To Protect and Serve, and to Insult Your Intelligence and Belittle You, indeed!

The story continues, of course.

A day later, I called the Chief's office of the SPPD, and spoke to a very wonderful officer named Mike Johnson. I began by asking him why, exactly, taking pictures of the headquarters building was prohibited. "Is this a joke?" he wanted to know. No, I said. As far as he and everybody he asked knew, it was perfectly legal to take pictures of the HQ. "Really?" I asked, "That's not what one of your fellow officers told me." So I recounted the whole sorry tale, to Officer Johnson's mounting disbelief. Did the officer say why he thought it was against the law? "No," I said, "that's why I'm asking you, but he at least intimated it was the Patriot Act."

"Oh," said Johnson, "that might be true, I guess. Beat officers are more up-to-date on that kind of thing than those of us with desk jobs."

I told him I'd read the Patriot Acts, and could find nothing in them that remotely concerned, by any reasonably stretch of the imagination, photography of anything, certainly not hospitals. Intrigued, he said he'd look into it, took my name and number, and promised to call me back.

Now, the SPPD and a lot of it's officers may never respond to email, but the officer called me back about half an hour later. The verdict? Perfectly legal to photography anyone or anything in Minnesota, from public property, which includes sidewalks. "There's no such thing as a private sidewalk in this city," he told me. "If it's next to the street, it's public property." He said he'd spoken to the head of security at United, who stopped short of apologizing, but suggested that to avoid future problems I call ahead and ask for a security escort while taking photos of the hospital.

Officer Johnson did warn me, though, to "use discretion" and common sense, saying that while it's not against the law to make photographs, because of paranoia about terrorism, I should take pains to ensure my presence and activities aren't misconstrued, as causing fear in people can be construed as making threats, or intimidation, or harassment, or somesuch. That, I was told, was the reason Karl and I were confronted by the overzealous Mister Chestnut and his sidekick; employees saw us and were afraid we, standing in plain view with tripod-mounted cameras, were gathering information for a terrorist attack. Sure. You bet.

I got my film back about a week later, developed. The two images of the hospital were notably absent. Karl undeleted the images on his flash card with a few minutes' effort. I contacted the Minnesota ACLU, but they were uninterested. I guess two white guys getting screwed by one of the largest healthcare providers in the region just isn't mediapathic enough for them. I contacted one of my favorite reporters at the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, and while she initially seemed very interested... nothing ever came of it. No surprise, given the media slant in the Twin Cities, of course.

So, in the end, we did get screwed by people with badges and have our rights thrown to the wind. Did we learn any valuable lessons? Oh yes, but probably not the lessons they wanted us to. (And, of course, 'be careful what you wish for'!) We've vowed to fight the system, to try and educate people that photography isn't a crime, and that photographers aren't terrorists. Wish us luck; we've got our work cut out for us.


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