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.]