An Oakland Tribune photographer who was arrested while taking pictures at an accident scene lost his civil rights case against the City of Oakland and several police officers on Tuesday.
Chavez claimed in his lawsuit that the police had interfered with his First Amendment right to cover vehicle accidents. In granting summary judgment for the city, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer said members of the press do not have a First Amendment right to access accident scenes when the general public is also excluded.
Chavez was driving on a highway in Oakland when a rollover accident occurred in front of him, according to court papers. With traffic in his lane stopped, he got out of his car and began taking pictures. Oakland police officer Kevin Reynolds told him to leave the scene, even after Chavez, who was wearing a press pass, claimed he had a right to be there.
When Chavez began taking pictures of an ambulance that had arrived, Reynolds blocked his lens and started writing a citation. When Chavez then began photographing the arrival of a California Highway Patrol car, Reynolds grabbed his camera and said, "That’s it. You’re under arrest. You don’t need to take these kinds of pictures."
Chavez was handcuffed and seated at the accident scene for a half-hour. He said drivers who assumed he was responsible for the wreck cursed at him as they passed. When he was finally cited and released, Reynolds said, "Don’t ever come here again to take these kind [of] photos."
Breyer ruled that even if Chavez was arrested because he was taking pictures, he could not win his lawsuit because he had not established a First Amendment right to take the pictures. The outcome might have been different, Breyer indicated, if Chavez had presented evidence that the general public had been given access to the accident scene. Without such evidence, Breyer wrote, "Common sense dictates that members of the general public are not allowed to exit their cars in the middle of the freeway to view an accident scene."
Breyer did not address the claims Chavez made under California media access laws, leaving open the opportunity for action in a state court.