Missouri police return college photographer’s camera disk, seized as evidence

City police have returned a student photographer’s digital camera disk, which they seized early this month without a search warrant because they said the disk contained crucial evidence.

The disk contained an image of individuals stealing a flag at a campaign rally held at Southwest Missouri State University campus in Springfield.

A Springfield police detective returned the disk to the Standard on Oct. 5, two days after it was confiscated at the rally on Sunday, Oct. 3.

Standard photo editor Amanda Stratford was on her way home after photographing a campaign rally for Bill Sczepanski, a candidate for state legislature. Sczepanski was talking to campus police about a stolen flag. Stratford approached the police and told them she had an image of the perpetrators. Campus police told Stratford she would have wait for Springfield police to arrive or leave the camera behind, she said.

“If you keep my camera, you’re keeping me,” Stratford said she thought at the time.

The police seized the disk per a recommendation from a Springfield assistant district attorney and obtained a search warrant while holding the disk as evidence, said Standard adviser Wanda Brandon.

Springfield police said they had legitimate reasons for seizing the disk. “There [were] actual photographs of the individuals that were taking the flag, so it was evidence that would support prosecution of these individuals,” Springfield Chief of Police Lynn Rowe said.

“They clearly do not know about the First Amendment or the federal Privacy Protection Act,” Brandon said.

The Privacy Protection Act, enacted in 1980, prohibits state and local law enforcement officers from performing searches or seizing materials from reporters, broadcasters and authors.

While there are exceptions under the law, University of Missouri media law Professor Sandra Davidson said none would apply in this situation. In a case like this the police should have asked a judge to issue a subpoena for the photograph, Davidson said.

The Standard has posted the image on its Web site. Stratford said the staff is still debating whether to give a copy to the police.

Brandon said the situation would have been different if the police had asked, rather than demanded, that Stratford cooperate.

“They didn’t send an apology,” she said. “We just didn’t like the way we were manhandled.”

SPLC View: Cheers to the Standard for not backing down. And jeers to the Springfield Police Department for apparently showing no remorse for an act that clearly broke the law. It may have been that police could have eventually compelled the newspaper to turn over its photos (or perhaps the Standard might have turned them over on its own), but there is a process that must be followed, and the police here made no attempt to play by the rules. Worse, they have given no indication that they will do so in the future. If a lesson is to be learned from this experience, however, it is that reporters and photographers – absent the risk of serious harm to others – are generally best served by sticking to their jobs of gathering and reporting information for their readers. Volunteering information to law enforcement officials, particularly before editors and other staff members have had an opportunity to weigh in, rarely ends well for the news media.