BOSTON (CN) – Ruling against a photographer who impersonated a first responder at a New Hampshire crime scene, the First Circuit said that the state trooper has immunity for seizing the man’s camera.
Brian Blackden brought the lawsuit in question with Belsito Communications, a regional news outlet that publishes 1st Responder News, over a confrontation with state troopers in 2010.
Early in the morning on Aug. 25 that year, Blackden’s radio picked up an alert about an auto accident on Interstate 93.
Though Blackden had spent a few years as a firefighter in two different New Hampshire communities, he had never been a licensed firefighter and his EMT license expired in the late 1980s.
What Blackden did have, however, was a decommissioned ambulance that he outfitted with new headlight lens and a sign that said “fire department photographer.” Blackden also wore a black turnout coat and a firefighter helmet, both labeled “photographer.”
Hoping to supply Belsito with photos of the crash, which involved one fatality, Blackden got in his gear, arrived at the scene and began taking pictures.
Both the Canterbury Fire Department and the Penacook Rescue Squad were on the scene, but Blackden did not follow the protocol of seeking permission to access the site.
Several officers at the scene say Blackden purported to be “with Penacook Rescue.”
If the photographer had been "dressed in a shirt and a tie, I would have had him removed from the scene," the chief said, according to the ruling.
State trooper James Decker found the ambulance-like vehicle suspicious, however, and began questioning Blackden.
Believing that the photos on Blackden’s camera be used as evidence of his crimes – including impersonation of an emergency-rescue provider – Decker spoke with an assistant district attorney and seized the photographer’s camera.
Blackden did eventually face various criminal charges and was convicted for wrongfully displaying red emergency lights on his decommissioned ambulance.
The photographer’s ensuing complaint against Decker alleged violations of the First and Fourth Amendments, but a federal judge dismissed the case.
A three-judge panel of the First Circuit in Boston affirmed on Dec. 23.
“The insurmountable problem for Belsito is that it cites no evidence to back up its theory that Blackden took the photos on its behalf,” U.S. Circuit Judge Rogeriee Thompson wrote for the court. “And we will not become archeologists, devoting scarce judge-time to dig through the record in the hopes of finding something Belsito should have found.”
Thompson said Decker ultimately prevails because of qualified immunity.
The 31-page ruling emphasizes how Decker “(a) believed Blackden had broken a bunch of state laws; (b) suspected Blackden knew he had caught the Trooper's eye; (c) concluded Blackden possessed evidence that could help nail him criminally; and (d) thought the evidence could be destroyed with ease before a search warrant could issue.”
As such, Thompson added, Blackden has not met his burden of showing that a reasonable trooper — confronted with the facts here — would have known beyond debate that he lacked exigent circumstances.” (Emphasis in original.)
In deciding the case on Fourth Amendment immunity issues, the court did not bother to reach the First Amendment concerns.
“We say only that Blackden failed to identify clearly-established law as of August 2010 showing beyond debate that Trooper Decker's specific acts violated the First Amendment, Thompson wrote. “And that is that.”
Belsito’s 1st Responder Newspaper has not returned a request for comment.
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