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California Judge Dismisses Felony Charges Against Photojournalists
On November 30, during the height of the Occupy movement, more than 100 activists marched down the street in Santa Cruz, one of hundreds of demonstrations taking place throughout the country at the time.
At one point, the activists entered an abandoned Wells Fargo – directly across the street from an active Wells Fargo branch – and began a three-day occupation, hoping to turn it into a community center in this Northern California city.
Also covering the demonstration was Shmuel Thaler, a photojournalist from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the city’s mainstream newspaper.
Meanwhile, Santa Cruz police attempted to disperse the activists from the abandoned building, but were outnumbered. After three days of negotiations with police, the activists left the building peacefully.
Naturally, police were not going to just leave it at that. They spent more than two months accumulating evidence — using the photos that were taken by the journalists and asking the public for help in identifying them – eventually naming 11 suspects.
Two of those suspects were Allen and Darocy, charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors. And it was obvious that the only reason they were named is because they published stories, photos and videos with their bylines.
But the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office tried to paint them as activists while ensuring Thaler, the Santa Cruz Sentinel photographer, was there as a bona fide journalist.
Fortunately, Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick saw through that flimsy argument and dismissed all charges against Allen and Darocy on Monday, May 14th.
Burdick also dismissed charges against four activists who were charged, leaving five more people facing charges, including two who are regular contributors to Indymedia.
“It will be interesting to see how their cases are treated,” Allen said in a phone interview with Photography is Not a Crime Monday night.
“They are more described as activists and advocacy journalists. They write very supportive of the demonstration while Alex and I are both more objective.”
The decision to dismiss the charges against Allen and Darocy is not only a victory for Indymedia, but a victory for independent journalists throughout the country who have been struggling for recognition and respect for more than a decade.
In an age of corporate media downsizing with an upswing in independent websites, blogs and YouTube accounts, it’s clear that the definition of a journalist has forever been changed.
In my latest arrest, Miami-Dade Police Major Nancy Perez — who heads the department’s media relations bureau — told my attorney that she didn’t consider me to be a real journalist, which is why she singled me out from the rest of the corporate journalists covering the Occupy Miami eviction.
But I have a degree in journalism. I’ve spent years working for the mainstream media before becoming an independent journalist. And I covered the Occupy Miami movement for Miami Beach 411 better than most of the local corporate journalists.
Maybe she was upset that I didn’t call her for a quote in the article I wrote about how little static the activists had been receiving from police; an article that was followed by the Miami New Times three days later in which they did call her for a quote.
But I didn’t need to call her for a quote when I was witnessing for myself what was taking place, while she was holed up in her office across the county.
Regardless, the First Amendment makes no distinction about journalism degrees or mainstream media experience or even press credentials when it ensures citizens Freedom of the Press.
And while that may cause confusion for authorities when arresting activists, considering almost everybody is carrying a camera these days, it shouldn’t have been that murky in this case, considering Allen and Darocy had published photos and articles before the activists had even been dispersed from the former bank.
That is one reason why the National Press Photographers Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and the ACLU all joined in their defense, writing letters and legal briefs to Judge Burdick in Allen’s defense.
But Santa Cruz police attempted to cast them as non-journalists from the very beginning on its own blog.
On December 6th, they posted Allen’s pictures in asking the public for help in identifying the activists, identifying him by name only, never declaring that he was a journalist.
That same day, they also posted photos taken by Thaler and a photojournalist from the Santa Cruz Patch, part of a community news organization owned by AOL, stating the following: "These photos were taken by local media outlets (Patch and Sentinel)."
At one point in the trial, according to Allen, Judge Burdick help up a photo that police took showing Allen on the roof of the building holding a camera, and told the prosecutor: “One can reasonably assume he was working as a photojournalist” as Thaler had been doing.
But assistant district attorney Rebekah Young responded by saying, “(Thaler) only took a single photograph. He was there only a short amount of time.”
So now the definition of a journalist is one who takes only one photo?
The corporate media cutbacks have been harsh, but not that harsh.
Perhaps the real issue is that in 2005 and 2006, Santa Cruz Indymedia exposed the Santa Cruz Police Department after it had sent undercover officers to infiltrate a community meeting about an upcoming New Year’s Eve parade in which they were trying to organize sans permit.
The outcry sparked an investigation in which police eventually cleared themselves of any wrongdoing.
But a month later, an independent auditor hired by the city determined police had violated the rights of citizens by infiltrating the meeting.
The issue pretty much died there, but a public records requests revealed that police had built up an extensive file on the citizens, including using a photo that Allen had taken during the parade, identifying that it came from "Indymedia".
So why didn’t they identify his photos as coming from Indymedia, while using them in trying to get the public to identify activists last December?
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CARLOS MILLER’S LEGAL DEFENSE FUND
I am immersed in a legal case where I not only want to clear my criminal charges stemming from my arrest in January, but I want to sue the Miami-Dade Police Department for deleting my footage, which I was able to recover.
My goal is to set some type of precedent to ensure this does not happen as often as it does today where cops simply get away with it.
So if you would like to contribute, please click on the “donate” button and contribute whatever you can afford.
You can also contribute to my [Carlos Miller] Legal Defense Fund by purchasing a photographer rights lens cloth and/or laminated card to wear around your neck like a press badge through Zap Rag. Please write “carlos3″ in the comments section of the Paypal transaction to ensure I receive a portion of the sale.