Civil Liberties

'It's Illegal to Take a Picture of a Law Enforcement Officer'

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Last month Scott Conover was driving on Highway 421 in Mountain City, Tennessee, when he saw a Johnson County sheriff's deputy, Starling McCloud, on the side of the road near a Mustang he had just pulled over. For reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Conover decided to take a picture of McCloud with his iPhone. According to McCloud and Mountain City police officer Kenneth Lane, who stopped at the scene to assist McCloud, Conover turned his Hummer around after passing the traffic stop and came by again slowly, telling McCloud, "Smile. I'm going to take your picture."

Question: What crimes did Conover commit? If your answer is "none," you may not be qualified to be a sheriff's deputy in Johnson County, Tennessee. McCloud counted three: "unlawful photographing in violation of privacy," "pointing a laser at a law enforcement officer," and "disorderly conduct."

The first charge is clearly groundless, since it applies only to a photograph taken where "there is a reasonable expectation of privacy" (i.e., not on a public road) if the photograph "would embarrass or offend an ordinary person" or if it was "taken for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification." By Conover's account, McCloud added his own provision to the law, saying, "It's illegal to take a picture of a law enforcement officer." The laser charge also seems to be baseless, assuming Conover is telling the truth when he says, "At no time did I have a laser. I had an iPhone." The disorderly conduct charge is based on Conover's refusal to delete the picture of McCloud, something the deputy had no right to demand.

"This officer asked the male subject to hand over the camera or delete the picture," McCloud reported (PDF). "The male subject said he was not going to do anything and got irate." Officer Lane confirmed (PDF) McCloud's account:

Deputy McCloud then asked the driver to delete the picture and told him he could leave….This man became very irate and started cursing. Deputy McCloud asked Mr. Conover just to delete the picture and he refused. This officer heard the woman in the passenger seat say, "Just delete it." Two children were sitting in the back seat as well.

My favorite part: According to Mountain City police officer Ben May, who also stopped by the scene, as Conover was being handcuffed and carted off to jail, he "demanded that his daughter take another picture." May added (PDF), "I then seen a young girl take a picture of the subject, Deputy McCloud, and myself." Evidently the little girl was not arrested.

Conover sounds like a bit of a dick, frankly, but McCloud, who misapplied the law and abused his authority, is more than just a private dick; he's a public menace. As Conover told WJHL, a local TV station, "This guy maliciously arrested me, charging me with phony charges that he don't even understand himself." WJHL notes that "taking photos is protected by the First Amendment." And as much as McCloud might wish it were otherwise, there is no law against annoying police officers.

[Thanks to Paul Armentano for the tip.]

NEXT: Pimp my Turnpike

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  1. Hey! They could have added contributing to the delinquincy of a minor when he told his daughter to snap a picture. Pricks!

  2. “pointing a laser at a law enforcement officer”

    Unless it’s either the right frequency for retinal tissue and pointed straight in his fucking eye, or a military grade weaponized laser that fell through a time portal from two centuries from now…

    WHAT. THE. FUCK.

    Two years from now…

    General Law 42-20-1 “Giving a Law Enforcement Official the Stink-Eye”…felony, one year minimum.
    Passed by large margins.

    “It’s for the Children!”

  3. Evidently, they feel that arresting little girls for taking pictures is either too much, or at least bad PR, but arresting grown men for taking pictures is A-OK.

    Good to know that they have a sense of proportion.

  4. a military grade weaponized laser that fell through a time portal from two centuries from now

    Phased plasma rifle in 40-watt range

  5. Evidently, they feel that arresting little girls for taking pictures is either too much, or at least bad PR, but arresting grown men for taking pictures is A-OK.

    Good to know that they have a sense of proportion.

    No, it’s just that they know better than anyone that arresting a little girl is dangerously close to “touching a girl inappropriately”.

    “It’s for the Children!”

    [Wild Applause]

  6. I thought only sharks had lasers?

  7. Episiarch,

    His crime? Not respecting the officers authoritah!

  8. Phased plasma rifle in 40-watt range

    [Starts loading shotgun]

    “Hey, you can’t do that in here!”

    “Wrong.”

    [*Blam*]

  9. Now this is just the kind of cop I like to hear about on the news getting run over by a car or shot in the line of duty. Its scum cops like this that give the very few good ones (if any) a bad name.

    JT
    http://www.Ultimate-Anonymity.com

  10. “pointing a laser at a law enforcement officer,”

    pew! pew! pew pew pew pew pew!

    pew!

    Man, I haven’t done that in years.

    pew pew pew pew! I got you! Yes, I did!

  11. It sounds like McCloud and Conover are dicks. Huzzah!

  12. Conover sounds like a bit of a dick, frankly, but McCloud, who misapplied the law and abused his authority, is more than just a private dick;

    He doesn’t sound like a dick at all. Instead he sounds like someone who knows his rights and doesn’t appreciate it when drunk with power douchebags try to infringe on his rights or intimidate him.

    If he did something illegal, then arrest him. But the whole “do what I say and you can leave” is basically a show of authority. I’d be pissed too, and I would berate the officer too if he was trying to assert falsehoods/untruths as the law.

  13. Fools! All fools!!! Everyone knows only living organic matter can go through the time displacement tunnel. Refer to Terminator series.

  14. joe —

    Fucking LOL!

    Justin Watts —

    I do find it hard sometimes to feel bad when pricks die, but that’s a far cry from wishing it to happen. Where’s your humanity, man!

  15. “Pointing a laser at a police officer.” Hokay.

  16. You are all just little people.

  17. Everybody has an expectation of privacy in their workplace.

    Even public officials on a public road conducting official public business whose actions are subject to review by a public court of law whose proceedings are a matter of public record.

    Makes perfect sense…somewhere.

  18. This is not the first time–in fact there’s some buzz among photographers about this issue. It’s gotten pretty silly (people have been stopped for taking pictures of airplanes, train stations etc.) and there’s a website where you can download a card to print out and show to cops and others:

    Photographers’ Righst

    Somebody in a discussion I read about this reminded us all of the silly Soviet prohibition against photographing trains during the Cold War. Glad we’re not getting that nuts. Or.. Oh… Okay.. Yes officer…

  19. H man —

    I’m a big advocate of public privacy (i.e. there can be reasonable expectations of privacy even in putatively public places), but never have I ever thought that public officials should have any privacy in their job whatsoever. Mainly for the reasons you point out in the second paragraph; they are about the public’s business and wielding force in the name of the public.

  20. The Tennessee “Unlawful Photography’ law requires that (a) the picture be taken where somebody has a reasonable expectation of privacy, and (b) the picture be taken for the photographer’s sexual interest. Don’t exactly see this meeting either prong, but that’s never stopped the cops before.

  21. I’m pretty sure that if a cop asked me to erase a photograph, I’d agree to do it then hit a bunch of buttons on my camera/phone to no effect. How would the cop know the difference?

  22. Everyone knows only living organic matter can go through the time displacement tunnel.

    Cameron had one stashed in a safe deposit box by soldiers sent years ago specifically to build it so she could shoot Cromartie with it.

    So it can be done. Dude.

  23. I’m pretty sure that if a cop asked me to erase a photograph, I’d agree to do it then hit a bunch of buttons on my camera/phone to no effect. How would the cop know the difference?

    By, um, confiscating the phone and checking themselves. Some of them are tool-using monkeys.

  24. Cameron had one stashed in a safe deposit box by soldiers sent years ago specifically to build it so she could shoot Cromartie with it.

    So it can be done. Dude.

    I felt so-so on the TV series, but I loved that scene. The plasma rifle they cobbled together from 1950s parts looked awfully steampunk-chic.

  25. By, um, confiscating the phone and checking themselves. Some of them are tool-using monkeys.

    I’m assuming here that any cop wishing to confiscate the phone and check it would have confiscated it and deleted the pictures in the first place.

  26. …there is no law against annoying police officers

    Which is exactly why I have two, and only two, bumper stickers on the back of my truck. One says “DARE to think for yourself” and the other says “Pigs Shouldn’t Rule.”

    I have been given a ticket once, and only once, since applying those stickers. That is all.

  27. there is no law against annoying police officers

    If you passed a law like that – and certainly, I favor it in principle – how would you determine which ones qualified as “annoying?”

    You just know the police unions would screw up the implementation something awful.

  28. I still need to find me a sticker that says “Pigs are Haram” (“Pigs are Treif” would also work, but there is much more of a chance that random John G. Police Officer might actually know what that means.)

    Maybe I’ll just make it myself.

  29. 12 posts before the first “douchebag,” but only nine before the first kill the cops reference. Progress?

  30. I felt so-so on the TV series

    I actually find it very compelling. Summer Glau and Lena Headey may have something to do with that, however.

    By, um, confiscating the phone and checking themselves. Some of them are tool-using monkeys.

    I would hazard a guess that the more of bully some shithead cop is, the more likely it is that he has no idea how to delete a photograph from an iPhone.

  31. I actually find it very compelling. Summer Glau and Lena Headley may have something to do with that, however.

    Yes, they are very…compelling.

  32. I’m pretty sure that if a cop asked me to erase a photograph, I’d agree to do it then hit a bunch of buttons on my camera/phone to no effect. How would the cop know the difference?

    I suppose it would depend on how smart the cop is. With the one that said, “I then seen a young girl take a picture” [are you sure he didn’t say “pitcher”?] you could probably get by with simply explaining that your phone doesn’t have any film in it.

  33. This is a dangerous trend.

    Cops are coming to believe that it’s illegal to document their activities.

    I expect soon it will be so.

  34. I have it on good authority that if the cop has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear.

  35. The cop probably thought that the auto focus (if the iPod even has that) used a laser. But who cares, its all about charging the perp with as much as possible.

  36. LMNOP, did you change “Headey” to “Headley”, even while copying and pasting my post? Because it is Headey.

  37. there is no law against annoying police officers

    Not even a law against very annoying ones?

  38. Now, what about if I look at a cop through my thumb and index finger while chanting “I’m crushing your head!”?

    Assault with a deadly weapon against a peace officer?

  39. Good thing he wasn’t pretending to crush the officer’s head a la KITH. That’s a mandatory life sentence right there.

  40. Eryk Boston, I’m crushing your head.

  41. J sub D | July 16, 2008, 1:59pm | #

    You are all just little people.

    Dwarf rights!

  42. Epi, this is probably who LMNOP was thinkin’ of. Glenne Headly. But you probably already knew that. Just like you imagined in your screenplay.

  43. Now, what about if I look at a cop through my thumb and index finger while chanting “I’m crushing your head!”?

    He would start “pinching your face”? Well, maybe if the cop was Kevin McDonald. So no.

  44. Anyone that lives not too far from Mountain City, Tennessee should drive there just for the purpose of taking a picture of Deputy McCloud. Unfortunately I do not. However, I’m putting it on my list.

  45. Cops do much worse things every moment of the day. This story only make the police look good.

  46. LMNOP, did you change “Headey” to “Headley”, even while copying and pasting my post? Because it is Headey.

    Right you are. I somewhat compulsively fix spelling and grammar errors in people I quote, and every once in a while, it comes back to mortifyingly bite me in the ass. Sorry about that.

    For some reason I’ve always heard it as “Lee-na Head-lee”. Weird.

  47. its all about charging the perp with as much as possible.

    Thus the “obstructing a police officer” charge. It’s so vague and broadly worded that, like mail fraud, even the unborn are guilty of it.

    The Seattle P-I did an investigative report on the obstruction charge and how much it’s used. Here’s a shock: it’s used much more against those with…um, dark skin. Pretty good report, actually.

    Let’s see…ah, here it is.

    “Police arrest African-Americans for the sole crime of obstructing — when it is not accompanied by an underlying charge — at a rate more than eight times as often as whites when population is taken into account, a Seattle P-I investigation of six years of Seattle Municipal Court records and data found. “

  48. Everybody has an expectation of privacy in their workplace.

    Tell that to actors and athletes.
    All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players

  49. For some reason I’ve always heard it as “Lee-na Head-lee”. Weird.

    Me too. I’m going to chalk it up to the “Glenne Headly effect”.

  50. Tell that to actors and athletes.
    All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players

    Though apparently the sound and fury is often loud enough to mask the sounds of pornography being downloaded and played on public computers during work hours.

  51. Me too. I’m going to chalk it up to the “Glenne Headly effect”.

    Unfortunately I have no such excuse. I had never heard of Glenne Headly until I followed your link.

  52. I have to go with Colin on this one. So if you act like a big enough jerk to a cop, you may get him to overreact? Who knew?

    This guy Conover was trying to start something. He wasn’t photographing police abuse or doing anything else I’d consider honorable. He was just trying to provoke.

    I’m second to none in how much my blood boils when I read Radley’s accounts of violent police raids, fabrication of evidence, etc. But this? Not so much.

    I think we libertarians should be able to admit that being a cop is a tough job. They deal with negative situations and jerks all day long. There’s nothing honorable about trying to torment them.

  53. They deal with negative situations and jerks all day long.

    So do people working at McDonalds. Does their employer allow them to get pissed off at the customers?

  54. I had never heard of Glenne Headly until I followed your link.

    She’s about as famous as John Turturro. Could be cryptomnesia.

  55. They deal with negative situations and jerks all day long

    So? It’s their job to deal with those negative situations. If they can’t deal with those situations without breaking the law (which this officer failed to do), then they should find a different job.

  56. I had never heard of Glenne Headly until I followed your link.

    You never saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?

  57. They deal with negative situations and jerks all day long.

    You know what else is like that? Being in any other sort of public service, private, contracting, consulting, etc. job in the world. If we accepted “he was provoking me” as an excuse for why we all stopped being professional at our jobs, we’d be so unproductive it’s hard to imagine.

  58. This is a dangerous trend.

    Cops are coming to believe that it’s illegal to document their activities.

    I expect soon it will be so.

    A law will be proposed. There are lots of cop fellaters in state legislatures.

  59. Conover sounds like a bit of a dick….

    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

    Even if he is a bit of dick, so what? Maybe we need more dicks like this.

  60. Everybody has an expectation of privacy in their workplace.

    I don’t, it is company property and as such I expect that they can search it anytime they want. Same with e-mails. Now my personal information I expect to be confidential and I believe there are laws to that effect, but no if my employer wants to put in surveillance cameras, have me wear a badge displaying my picture and name, etc. I comply or look for a new job. So I think you are quite wrong.

  61. You know what else is like that? Being in any other sort of public service, private, contracting, consulting, etc. job in the world. If we accepted “he was provoking me” as an excuse for why we all stopped being professional at our jobs, we’d be so unproductive it’s hard to imagine.

    You neglected a few thousand professions, but I think that sums it up.

    Even hermit philosophers have to deal with the fucktards who climb up the mountain.

  62. Does their employer allow them to get pissed off at the customers?

    My employer does. But I can say I’ve never blown up at a customer, even though under certain circumstances I’m allowed to. I like that aspect of the job; it takes some of the neurotic pressure off. On the other hand, I’m not armed at work, and civilians are not required to defer to me on duty, so there’s that.

    You never saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?

    Yes. Just never knew Colgate’s name IRL.

  63. So do people working at McDonalds. Does their employer allow them to get pissed off at taser the customers?

  64. All the world’s a stage

    Theaters are enclosed by walls and roofs,
    So that each actor, of his own accord
    Might play, and, be it tragic or for goofs,
    Assured of his dear privacie, each lord
    Or peasant entertain who’s paid the price.
    But constables and gendarmes are not fit
    To leer upon whatever private vice
    Or virtue, players, by their will or wit,
    Would fain conceal. The world-stage hides a room
    For actors secretly to dress in, which,
    When violated by King’s Men, spells doom
    And makes each man a pauper, were he ne’er so rich.
    Let’s have our secrets kept, our rights unfurled:
    The world’s a stage; the stage is not the world.

  65. I’m still calling cryptomnesia, LMNOP.

  66. It’s Headley!

  67. If it’s illegal to point a laser at a police officer, why isn’t it illegal for a police officer to point a laser (speed device) at a citizen?

  68. “Sorry officer, they get automatically sent to my Flickr account.”

  69. So if you act like a big enough jerk to a cop, you may get him to overreact? Who knew?

    This guy Conover was trying to start something. He wasn’t photographing police abuse or doing anything else I’d consider honorable. He was just trying to provoke.

    Tough luck for the cop.

    If a citizen stays within the law, he gets to provoke a cop all he wants and the cop doesn’t get to say fucking shit about it. Or the municipality in question deserves to be sued into property tax oblivion.

  70. My employer does. But I can say I’ve never blown up at a customer, even though under certain circumstances I’m allowed to

    Now I’m curious. What job allows you blow up at a customer? Are you an FBI agent?

  71. What job allows you blow up at a customer?

    Pro wrestler.

  72. That would be: Pointing a “laser” at a law enforcement officer.

  73. So LMNOP is a luchador?

  74. Epi —

    Fuck no. If I go into law enforcement, shoot me.

    No, nothing so exotic. I work as a day manager at a family-owned (not my family) Inn on a scenic route in RI, while saving up for grad school. The owner was quite emphatic with the employees that the customer is not always right, that you may enforce the policies she has outlined *with as much emphasis as is necessary to get the point across*, which means up to and including tossing verbally abusive customers. She said she’d back us up if we are in the right (not, obviously, if we are just shouting at people for no reason), and unlike most bosses who *say* that, I’ve actually seen her do it.

    It is a fascinating job, working in hospitality. You learn a shitload about people, including many things you probably don’t ever really want to know. And a hilarious cast of characters. Especially, I must say, the ‘hot cheaters’ as we call them.

  75. Luchador would have been cooler.

    What are “hot cheaters”? Attractive people cheating on their spouses with each other? Card sharks running a fever?

  76. Blow up a customer? Sweet!

    [“Kill all the golfers?”]

  77. Pictures, LM, pictures.

  78. This guy Conover was trying to start something. He wasn’t photographing police abuse or doing anything else I’d consider honorable. He was just trying to provoke.

    And you know that how?

    And we shouldn’t expect the cop to not be provoked?

  79. >i>What are “hot cheaters”? [Attractive] people cheating on their spouses

    If you had stopped here you would have had it.

  80. So if you act like a big enough jerk to a cop, you may get him to overreact? Who knew?

    This guy Conover was trying to start something. He wasn’t photographing police abuse or doing anything else I’d consider honorable. He was just trying to provoke.

    I can honestly say that I’ve been treated with disrespect by cops far more times that I’ve treated one with disrespect. An honest estimate is

    Cops being an asshole to J sub D – 8
    J sub D being an asshole to cops – 0

    It’s good that Conover is evening up the score.

  81. Just to give you some perspective, where I live, the other day a teenager was caught trying to burglarize a house by some residents. The cops came and took the kid away. The next thing you know, the kid’s dead. And what’s the police’s response? It must be the fault of people who apprehended the kid.

    This picture-taking story is nothing.

  82. I think you mean “hot-sheeters”. As in “hot-sheet joint”. As in, the revolving-door cast of occupants utilizes the bedsheets so frequently that friction causes them to increase in temperature…

  83. You cop haters…bet you wouldn’t want one of these babies pointed at you.http://www.wickedlasers.com/lasers/Spyder_II_GX-26-3.html

  84. 300mw @532nm has got to hurt.

  85. Elemenope-

    My family was in the inn business for many years in RI-in the city by the sea. They started with the family house doing B&B, then expanded by buying three more properties and running a separate B&B referral service before retiring about 5 years ago.

  86. My family was in the inn business for many years in RI-in the city by the sea. They started with the family house doing B&B, then expanded by buying three more properties and running a separate B&B referral service before retiring about 5 years ago.

    Cool. The B&Bs in the area are pretty damn impressive; when we are full up that’s usually who we refer to (much rather that than the fleabag motels…ugh!).

  87. Conover sounds like a bit of a dick hero, frankly, and the country would be a better place if there were more people like him.

  88. Wow, cops are assholes. Tell me something I don’t know.

  89. If you’re going to get a job in a public office exercising control over other people’s lives, I expect you to fully surrender ALL your privacy. I should be able to take a picture of you shitting if that’s what it takes.

    Don’t like, then don’t work in government.

    I demand complete transparency.

  90. stuff like this happens in this county all the time..i know.. i live here. i commend conover for standing up to the rogue “cops” here..if he didn’t post bond quick enough he prolly got the hell beat out of him while he was in there from the rogues too. it happens all the time here. we have 17 cases before local attorneys but how many will prosecute their own law people? prolly none… aclu we need your help in johnson county, tn!!!

  91. oh..and another thing…we have so many unsolved murders and disappearances under very unusual circumstances that are swept under the rug iin this county too..one was a 19 year old boy…these families get no justice and the TBI has to step in continually–STILL nothing done…i had a friend who had a break in at her house..because the perpetrator was a friend of these jerk cops, they told her they cannot take fingerprints off of wood paneling!! aclu help us!!

  92. “I have it on good authority that if the cop has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear.”

    It’s me again guys but i had to add one more thing…conover owns a local bar in the community… these cops had been harrassing his employees and patrons for a few weeks prior to this incident. basically, stitting near and waiting for them to leave so they could be stopped on some bogus thing..so conover was pissed..yes, the officer was wrong on all accounts.

  93. I would have arrested his ass too! Officer McCloud is the man! Sounds like A yankee prick coming down here making trouble

  94. But the cop just knew he knew he was Reich!!!

  95. Based on the info in the article and after reading the attached affidavit (including the photographing law) it does not appear that there was a violation. Of course the law does appear to have a section mentioning minors therefore my question would be “was there a minor in the originally stopped mustang?” As for the Disorderly Conduct charge. After reading the officer’s statement. It does appear the man is guilty of that.

  96. The police are just paranoid because they have been abusing their authority. Treating people as if they were poop under their shoes. Maybe if more of us were aware of whats ‘legal’ and illegal we would stand a better chance of defending ourselves against bogus charges by law enforcement simply because it doesn’t suit them.

  97. The cop should lose his badge for this. It’s real simple.

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