In the Press

Tribune photographer sues city

August 21, 2008 | Oakland Tribune

By Kelly Rayburn

OAKLAND — Tribune photographer Ray Chavez filed a lawsuit against the city Thursday, saying Oakland police officers infringed on his rights when they arrested him as he was trying to shoot pictures last year of a car crash and the emergency response to it.

The lawsuit stems from an incident May 4, 2007, when Chavez, who was driving north on Interstate 880 in Oakland, stopped his car to take pictures after a car in front of him crashed. The lawsuit alleges that an Oakland police officer who later arrived on the scene told Chavez, “You don’t need to take these kind of photos” before placing him in handcuffs.

“The officers interfered with the freedom of the press,” said Adam Belsky, an attorney with the San Francisco law firm Gross Belsky Alonso, which is representing Chavez. “They clearly had no First Amendment training, and they blocked a reporter’s access to a news scene for no reason.”

Oakland police Officer Jeff Thomason, the department’s spokesman, said police had no comment. Alex Katz, spokesman for City Attorney John Russo, also declined to comment.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and additional training for Oakland police on how to work with media. Belsky said the officers involved violated both state law and Oakland Police Department protocol by not giving Chavez the access he was seeking.

Chavez was never taken into custody, but the lawsuit said that he was cursed at and was subject to humiliation after he was left on the roadside in handcuffs for 30 minutes.

“It happened to me,” Chavez said. “It could happen to anybody else. If we don’t complain, if we don’t file the lawsuit, then the cops are going to keep doing it over and over and over “… they should let us do our job.”

Neither the Tribune nor its parent company, MediaNews, is involved in Chavez’s litigation.

“At the time of this incident, staff photographer Ray Chavez was shooting photos for the Tribune and its sister papers,” said Tribune Editor Martin G. Reynolds in a statement. “It appears from the allegations in his complaint, the Oakland Police Department officers clearly did not understand he had a statutory right to be at the scene gathering information as long as he did not impede the work of authorities or emergency personnel. Ultimately, we hope this matter is resolved with a clearer understanding on the part of OPD of the press’ right to do its job and gain access to accident scenes.”

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