Freelancer Says Deputies Are Hounding Him

     SAN DIEGO (CN) – A freelance journalist who claims San Diego County sheriff’s deputies arrested him for trying to videotape and report on crime and accident scenes may press only a small fraction of his civil rights claims, a federal judge ruled.
     James Playford, a freelance photojournalist and agent for American News and Information Services, sued the City and County of San Diego, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff William Gore and several deputies, alleging retaliatory government actions, illegal search and seizure, failure to train and false arrest.
     Playford said he was issued media credentials by the San Diego Police Department in 2007. He said his adversarial relationship with law enforcement began in 2008, when he filmed sheriff’s deputies beating Allen Baker outside of a bar in Ramona, Calif. Playford and Baker later filed a civil rights complaint against the county.
     In 2009, the city sent Playford a letter warning him that his media credentials were in danger of being revoked based on information from the Sheriff’s Department about “complaints and court actions against deputies in which there had been apparent questionable recollections and accounting of the facts,” according to U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez’s summary of the case.
     Several months later, Playford said -after he posted online videos of a makeshift brothel that the Police Department denied existed – Playford was told his credentials were not being renewed.
     The Sheriff’s Department also distributed a captioned photograph of Playford, stating that he was not a member of the media, to deputies and other law enforcement agencies in San Diego County, according to Playford’s complaint.
     Playford’s interactions with deputies did not stop there. In 2010, Playford was recording sheriff’s Officer Thomas Seiver interviewing two people at the scene of an alleged assault with a deadly weapon. The scene was not closed to the public and Playford claims he was no closer than 10 to 15 feet from Seiver.
     Playford was not arrested then, but filed an Internal Affairs complaint against Seiver, claiming that the officer ran toward and pushed Playford in the street.
     After he filed the complaint, Playford was charged with obstructing or delaying an officer.
     A month later, Playford says, he was trying to videotape Seiver interviewing a mentally ill woman who allegedly had made homicidal and suicidal threats. Despite being in a grocery store parking lot open to the general public and 50 feet away from the scene, Playford says, he was arrested for obstructing or delaying an officer.
     Playford said his camera was seized during the incident.
     In 2011, Playford was arrested while using his cell phone while at the scene of a bomb threat at the office of a congressman. He said he was outside of motor vehicle detour points and police tape boundaries when he was arrested.
     In the final incident, Playford was trying to report on a multiple fatality car collision. Although he was in a closed-off area accessible to some members of the media, deputies told him that his media credentials did not allow him to be within the accident scene. When Playford objected to being excluded, he says, he was arrested and his camera and media credentials were seized.
     Criminal charges arising from the first two incidents were resolved through a plea bargain in which Playford pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace. Playford was found guilty of obstructing or delaying an officer in connection to the bomb threat scene and not guilty in the car collision scene.
     Judge Benitez ruled on Sept. 18 that Playford can continue with his claims for retaliatory government actions and failure to train, but only against select defendants.
     Noting that he was “mindful that only one side” of the story was available, Benitez found that Playford “has alleged the county defendants took action that would chill or silence a person of ordinary firmness from future First Amendment activities.”
     The only arrest that cannot form the basis for a retaliation claim is the incident arising from the car collision, because members of the media can be excluded from accident or crime scenes without violating the First Amendment.
     The retaliation claim can be brought only against Sheriff Gore and Public Affairs Director Jan Caldwell. The individual deputies named as defendants all have qualified immunity.
     Playford’s failure to train claim can continue against Gore and San Diego County.
     Playford’s allegations that he was targeted, in part, by the photograph of him that was circulated to law enforcement due to his Internal Affairs complaint “collectively suggest Playford may have been targeted in retaliation for his First Amendment activities as a result of the county’s failure to train,” Benitez wrote.
     But Playford’s claim for illegal search and seizure based on the seizure of his cameras cannot stand. The cameras fall somewhere between the allowable physical search of a cigarette package found in a pocket during a search incident to arrest, and the data search of a cell phone that generally requires a warrant, Benitez ruled.
     Benitez “cannot say that ‘existing precedent [has] placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.'” He ruled that the deputies have immunity.
     Playford’s claim that the warrantless seizure of his cameras constitutes violations of the Federal Privacy Protection Act failed because the Act does not protect individuals suspected of criminal activity.
     Playford’s false arrest claim was dismissed since officers had probable cause to arrest him after he refused to leave the accident scene, despite an officer’s order to move. The claim was dismissed without prejudice, though Benitez found it unlikely that an amendment would be successful.
     Playford’s attorney, Rachel Baird, said they plan to amend the claim and will press the other remaining claims.
     “Once these claims are resolved and dependent upon how these claims are resolved as they move forward and into trial will determine whether we appeal the dismissal of the other counts,” she said.

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