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Officers violated this newspaper man's rights
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Representatives of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department and the Modesto Area Division of the California Highway Patrol have issued informal apologies, but this reporter is still steaming at the way he was illegally forbidden from doing his job Thursday afternoon.

At about 12:26 p.m. a 911 center went out for a fatal crash on Santa Fe Avenue southeast of Hughson. I headed off to cover the crash. While eastbound on Keyes Road I was ahead of an eastbound CHP cruiser which was in Code 3 "red lights and siren" mode and, like the law requires, I yielded to allow him to pass so he could do his job. But moments later the law would not be followed for me to allow me to do my job.

Santa Fe was blocked off between the nearest cross streets to bar public access. A CHP officer posted at the blockade allowed me through after seeing my press credentials. He noted, "I can't keep you out." His was the last smile I would see.

California Penal Code Section 409.5 gives police the authority to close off areas for the handling of emergencies and disasters. However, subsection D clearly states that "Nothing in this section shall prevent a duly authorized representative of any news service, newspaper, or radio or television station or network from entering the areas closed..."

Thus, state law allows the press the right to access an emergency scene barring a crime scene. If the emergency is a hazard officials are supposed to warn us.

Those words, "I can't keep you out," would echo in my heads moments later.

I drove the quarter-mile to the scene where rescue personnel were scrambling to extract victims from a crumpled Ford off on the east side of Santa Fe just north of Barnhart Road. I pulled over far from the crash scene on the opposite side of Santa Fe Avenue and walked in. I've been in the newspaper business for 27 years (22 years at the Courier) and must have covered 100 crashes, a number of them fatal. I've never gotten in the way of anyone who have the critical job of saving lives. So I was aghast at what occurred next. I managed to squeeze off five photos of firemen at work before a deputy - I would later regret not getting his name - got in my face and asked me what I was doing. I informed him that I was from the Courier and held up my press badge. He responded, "Okay, 300 feet that way." How could any officer expect a press photographer to get a decent shot of a rescue scene from 300 feet away? It was an unexplicably unreasonable order.

I began to walk toward the nearby raised railroad tracks where there stood an elderly onlooker - who I might add was allowed to watch the rescue unimpeded by deputies. I reasoned that if I stood on that spot I would have a good vantage point for photos through my zoom. I stopped midway, clearly far from anyone and was immediately told by the deputy to "drop the camera." Before I could ask him to explain his arbitrary and capricious demand about a 300-foot perimeter, a CHP officer spun around and angrily charged my way, pointing his finger and barking, "If I have to tell you again I will arrest you!"

While there was no arrest, it was an ugly and very unnecessary encounter.

Both were profoundly aggressive in insuring that I would get no photographs of victims being pulled from the wreckage. No doubt about it: Had I stayed to do my job I would have been thrown in the back of a patrol car where I would have been of no use for the next several hours.

I left, seething, but unsure that my five hastily snapped photos captured the gravity of the news event.

I was hot on the phone. Lt. Tim Beck of the Sheriff's Department apologized for his deputy's actions, saying professional courtesies should have been extended. Actually, I shouldn't have been spoken to at all by either officer.

Over the years there's been countless tangles of law enforcement versus the media but never involving myself. The courts have stood behind journalists who act reasonably in trying to get information and/or photos. Courts have recognized under the First Amendment that the press has a privilege to be left alone by the police, so long as the media do not unreasonably interfere with or obstruct police activity or risk their own personal safety. In the 1990 New Hampshire case of Connell v. Town of Hudson, for example, a federal district court found that a news photographer had a First Amendment right to be at a car-accident scene. Here in California, in the 1986 case of Leiserson v. City of San Diego, the court ruled that that the press is guaranteed access to a closed disaster site unless the police on scene reasonably determined that press access would interfere with emergency operations. In that decision, Justice Howard B. Weiner reaffirmed that the Penal Code forbids police officers from interfering with press coverage of accidents and disasters.

"Notwithstanding such a safety hazard, the Legislature has concluded that the public's right to know is more important," stated Weiner's opinion. "Press representatives must be given unrestricted access to disaster sites unless police personnel at the scene reasonably determine that such unrestricted access will interfere with emergency operations. This means that members of the press must be accommodated with whatever limited access to the site may be afforded without interference."

The deputy's order violated my rights because 300 feet would have been no accommodation at all.

Beck interjected that a polite request goes a lot farther than a tactless abrasive reaction. The two officers were probably reacting the way they did, he offered, because there was a critically injured child in the car. While we journalists get upset, too, to see people broken or snuffed out in a car, we're not in the habit of running objectionable photos anyway.

Sorry, but these two failed the test. Officers are trained to be professional and keep their heads about them in situations like this and worse. I was a member of the media who had a job to do. It's obvious that the CHP and Sheriff's Department need to spend more time in training new recruits how to deal with the media the right way. Throughout history of news photography, we all know that certain photos can convey more than words can. By law enforcement appointing themselves as editors, they neuter our ability to convey to a free people all kinds of pitfalls and consequences in life. Control news photography and you act as government censors. That's the danger with loose cannon officers who don't know the law or reject it for an emotional attachment.

I will long wonder photos you didn't get to see because I was not allowed to do my job.

How do you feel? Let Jeff know at