COMMENTARY: Unlawful Police Detentions and Pat-downs in Downtown Long Beach?
2:54pm | How many police officers does it take to respond to a man dressed like this (see below) believed to be taking pictures of the Long Beach courthouse from across the street?
If you're the L.A. County Sheriff's Department contingent that guards the courthouse, the answer is: eight. Or at least it was on June 2, when that many officers crossed Ocean Boulevard at Magnolia Avenue to physically detain me for "suspicious circumstances."
It is important to note two things here: 1) Photographing the courthouse is a legal activity. 2) This was not, "Can we talk to you a second?"; this was, "What are you doing? Move over here, sir. Put your hands behind your back, palms together," then a non-consensual pat-down search thorough enough to include two gropings of my groin.1
Ironically, I was not actually photographing the courthouse. I live across the street, and I had popped downstairs to see if I could snap a few pics of people talking or texting while driving to go along with my little piece on the results of Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
So why all the hubbub, bub? "You were suspiciously doing something gave us probable cause to contact you," said Sgt. Maurice Hill, the lead officer on the scene — that "suspicious activity" being my seeming to photograph the courthouse.
It's understandable why they believed that's what I was doing. I was at Ocean and Chestnut Avenue for a good 15 minutes trying to get photos.2 What I had trouble understanding is why I was detained3 and searched, and why so many officers were involved.
"Our folks [inside the courthouse] are always looking," said Hill at the time. "And if they see something suspicious, they're going to check it, and they're going to go out over the air. And when they do that, we come to check it out. … When we put it out, we have officers that respond. … We respond with whomever's available, and that's what occurred."
Below at right, the author is seen 15 minutes after eight sheriff's deputies detained and frisked him for suspicion of taking pictures of the courthouse
To leave the scene, I was required to provide my name, address, phone number, driver's license number, the name of the publication for which I was writing and the publisher's name and contact information. To get my camera back, I was required to show one of the officers its contents.
Or that's what it felt like. The truth is, I was asked to show an officer the pics I'd taken, and I'm kicking myself that I didn't refuse. As for the rest of the information I provided, it didn't occur to me to decline it. They certainly didn't put it to me like I had a choice. And I tend to do what police officers tell me to do.
When reached later that day by phone, Hill explained, "We were detaining you because of a suspicious circumstance to ascertain your intention." Declining to discuss the matter further via telephone, he invited me to come to the courthouse the following day to talk in person.
In Part 2 of this story, I will review my subsequent discussion with Hill; related discussions with spokespeople for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, the Long Beach Police Department, the Long Beach City Attorney's Office, and Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal's office; and state and federal laws concerning detention and searches.
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1This is not to imply there was any sexual misconduct involved. (Though when you look at me in my little outfit, you have to wonder how anyone could resist.)
2In no time I got two snaps of people texting while driving, but remarkably I never did see anyone with phone to ear — which is why I eventually moved to the more traffic intensive intersection of Ocean and Magnolia.
3As a diligent civil libertarian, I know the difference between consensual contact and detainment, and I'm very careful about the language the police are using and that I use in response. This was detainment. At no time was I given any choice in the matter, and if I had attempted to leave, you can best believe I was being taken in.