ACLU of Washington Supports Professor Detained for Taking Photos on Public Property

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
November 15, 2007 12:00 am

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SEATTLE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed a lawsuit on behalf of Shirley Scheier, a University of Washington professor who was detained by city of Snohomish police for taking photographs of power lines as part of an art project. Filed in Snohomish County Superior Court, the lawsuit seeks compensation for her wrongful detention.

“Taking photographs of objects or people in plain view is not a crime. Police should not presume that it is a suspicious act, and should not overreact by detaining people for taking pictures,” said ACLU of Washington Legal Director Sarah Dunne.

Scheier is a 54-year-old artist and Associate Professor of Fine Art at the University of Washington who often uses photos of public land and public structures in her artistic prints. Her artwork featuring Washington’s landscape was recently featured in a show at the university’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

In October 2005, Scheier drove to Snohomish and stopped to take pictures of the power towers at a substation near downtown from outside the facility’s gate. She was on public property, and there were no signs indicating that photography was not allowed.

As she drove home on State Highway 9, Snohomish police pulled her over. More officers arrived soon, began to question her about her pictures and demanded to see them. Scheier explained that she is a university faculty member interested in power lines as part of our ecosystem.

“Power lines are an integral aspect of the Pacific Northwest landscape. The actual physical structures are sculpturally quite beautiful. They have a majestic figurative stance on the landscape,” Scheier said.

Police frisked and handcuffed Scheier, and placed her in the back of a police car for almost half an hour. The incident was traumatic for Scheier, particularly because the handcuffs were painful and she suffers from a blood clotting disorder.

She was eventually released after officers photographed maps that Scheier used to find the power station. The officers also told her she would be contacted by the FBI about the incident.

Scheier’s experience highlights a pattern of law enforcement officers harassing people for taking pictures in public since September 11, 2001. In fact, other photographers also have complained to the ACLU about being harassed by law enforcement.

The ACLU recently obtained compensation from the city of Seattle for Bogdan Mohora, who was wrongfully arrested for taking photographs of police making an arrest in downtown Seattle. In 2005, the ACLU assisted a photographer when King County Sheriff’s deputies seized the memory card in his camera for taking pictures of artwork in the Seattle bus tunnel. And in 2004, the ACLU assisted photography student Ian Spiers, who was questioned by law enforcement for taking pictures at the Ballard Locks, a popular tourist destination.

Attorneys in the case are cooperating attorney Venkat Balabrasumani and Aaron Caplan of the ACLU of Washington.

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