Witness, photojournalist allege police confiscated cameras

Clara Hogan | Newsgathering | Feature | June 8, 2011

Miami Beach police allegedly confiscated video-recording equipment from at least one member of the public and a TV photojournalist after both witnessed officers shooting and killing a suspect on a public street.

The footage that 35-year-old Florida resident Narces Benoit captured on his cell phone has attracted much attention on YouTube. The video shows a group of Miami Beach police officers fatally shooting Raymond Herisse, a 22-year-old accused of using his car as a weapon against police during a traffic stop. Following the shootout, which occurred on Memorial Day, video footage shows police officers noticing Benoit and telling him to move away. After Benoit retreated to his car with the video still rolling, officers are shown approaching him with their guns pointed directly at the camera.

Benoit told reporters that police officers -- after realizing he had footage of the shooting -- forced him and Erika Davis, his girlfriend who was also in the car, to the pavement with guns pointed at their heads. He said officers handcuffed him while they took his cell phone, smashed it on the ground and placed it in his back pocket. He also alleges he saw officers intimidate other witnesses and take their cell phones as well.

"When he noticed me recording, one of the officers jumped in the truck, put a pistol to my head," he told CNN, which paid for the video. "My phone was smashed -- he stepped on it, handcuffed me."

Benoit said he was taken to the police station for questioning. He told reporters he stored the video on his phone's SIM card, which he hid in his mouth and did not disclose to officers when they requested it.

However, city officials released a statement Tuesday dismissing Benoit’s claims that he was targeted for filming the incident. Instead, they said officers took him in as a witness because he matched the description of a man who fled the scene and "ignored repeated commands." They also disputed claims authorities stomped on his cell phone, releasing a photo that shows the device with only one crack.

WPLG, a TV station in Miami, reported officers also took a camera away from one of the station's photojournalists. The camera was later returned. When contacted, the station declined to comment.

The alleged police misconduct has outraged First and Fourth Amendment advocates who say the police department has set itself up for legal action and that officers need to be trained to handle being filmed. The American Civil Liberties Union has requested an independent review of the police activity.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, sent a letter to Police Chief Carlos Noriega, saying officers violated the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and First Amendment rights to record in a public place. Osterreicher copied Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower on the letter.

“While it may be understandable that your officers had a heightened sense of tension after the shooting of Raymond Herisse that is still no excuse for them to allegedly harass, intimidate, threaten or attack those taking photographs/video on a public street,” Osterreicher said. “Recently in Egypt, Syria and Libya citizens and photojournalists have risked, and in some cases given, their lives to provide visual proof of repressive governmental activities. It is truly a shame that what is viewed abroad as heroic is considered as suspect at home."

Florida has received attention recently for another situation involving police officers attempting to stop pictures being taken in public spaces. On and off duty officers have been been “harassing, intimidating and threatening photojournalists trying to photograph people and places on a film set” located in a public space in Fort Lauderdale, Osterreicher said.

In a letter to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, Osterreicher reminded authorities that, if an area is open to the public, photography is allowed under the First Amendment.

“Photography may not be restricted in a public place to accommodate the whims of Hollywood or the desire by your officers to please their 'second-job' employers,” he said.

Osterreicher said it’s not the National Press Photographers Association’s place to sue over the Miami Beach incident, although he said he has spoken with the Miami chapter of the ACLU about a potential class-action lawsuit stemming from what he said is a slew of incidents in southern Florida involving police officer actions that attempt to chill free speech.

In addition, public-access advocates said another issue that has arisen out of the Miami Beach incident is that the public may have known little about the shooting if it were not captured on video by Benoit. Under a new Florida law, signed by Gov. Rick Scott on June 2, photographs, video and audio recordings depicting or recording the "killing of a person" are now exempt from the state’s public records disclosure laws.