Commission returns confiscated film, taking called 'legal but inappropriate'

TEXAS — The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission may have acted illegally when it confiscated the film of a student photographer who was taking pictures for the University of Dallas student newspaper at a Groundhog Day party.On Feb. 1, Mark Ruiz arrived on the scene of an off-campus party to take photographs for the University News. A police raid of the party was already in progress. Ruiz said he had taken a couple of pictures of the scene when a TABC agent told him that he must turn over his film because it could contain evidence of underage drinking.Ruiz said he identified himself as a member of the press and told the agent that he needed the film for production on Monday. The agent gave Ruiz his business card so that Ruiz could contact him about getting the film back, and Ruiz handed over the film.The next day, Ruiz said, he started to question the legality of the confiscation and began contacting advisers and the Student Press Law Center about his rights.TABC returned the film undeveloped a few days later. Maj. Dexter Simpson of the TABC called the seizure “legal but inappropriate.” The seizure was legal, Simpson said, because “the agent felt underage drinking was occurring and felt that pictures had been taken depicting underage students drinking alcohol.”Simpson decided to return the film undeveloped after determining that Ruiz had not been at the party before the raid and, therefore, his film would not reveal any activities occurring before police arrived on the scene.A federal statute called the Privacy Protection Act prohibits government officials from seizing journalists’ work product materials unless the official believes the materials relate to a crime the journalist has committed or that the seizure is necessary to prevent a death or serious bodily injury.Lee Levine, a Washington, D.C. media lawyer, said the law “places severe limitations on searches of newsrooms and news personnel.” In order to get access to journalists’ materials, “the normal procedure is to issue a subpoena and give the paper the opportunity to raise constitutional defenses,” Levine said. “It sounds to me like what happened here would at least violate the spirit of the statute.”Simpson said the confiscation did not violate the statute because underage drinkers put their lives in danger when drinking. “One result of underage drinking is death. This is a life-and-death situation,” Simpson said.Ruiz said the incident has been an educational experience for himself and the University News. Now that he knows more about his free press rights, he said if he were confronted again with the same situation, he “would definitely put up more resistance and tell the officer that it’s not within your rights to take my film.”