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Carlos Miller, who has documented dozens of these incidents on his Photography Is Not a Crime blog, has twice been prevented by private security and public police from taking video at a Miami Metrorail station, despite getting assurance from Metrorail Safety and Security Chief Eric Muntan that shooting non-commercial video on the train and in its stations is perfectly legal. Last month, The Washington Post catalogued numerous instances where people were arrested, detained, or warned for taking pictures or video in public despite having the law on their side. The New York Times reported similar incidents, including one where a man was prevented from taking photos at an Amtrak station for a photography competition sponsored by Amtrak.
As if all that wasn't bad enough, consider this excerpt from the Post article, describing the Vorus incident in Georgetown:
Police say they were justified in stopping him because was taking photos of the inside of the squad car. Vorus, who was 20 feet away, says he "wasn't trying to make a point or cause a scene" but was merely asserting his rights.
Second District Cmdr. Matthew Klein said there is no official prohibition against photographing the interior of a squad car. But he said officers acted appropriately because they thought Vorus was escalating the situation.
"They had a situation developing," Klein said. "They had to make a call."
What Klein describes as Vorus "escalating the situation" was Vorus explaining his rights to the cops. Not only are citizens expected to know all of the applicable laws, and to know how the courts have interpreted those laws, they must also know the sometimes tortured way that current law enforcement officials are applying those laws and legal decisions in the field. Police officers, on the other hand, do not have to know any of that. And even when citizens are right on the law, explaining the law and its proper application when confronted by the police can be interpreted as "escalating the situation," which then justifies detainment and possible arrest.
For the most part, the old axiom remains true. Ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it. But there's an exception if you happen to work in law enforcement. Unfortunately for citizens, sometimes even knowledge of the law won't be enough to prevent you from getting arrested.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.