Calif. police arrest student journalist for photographing alleged crime

CALIFORNIA — An 18-year-old college freshman was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors–second-degree burglary and tampering with a vehicle or its contents–for taking controversial photographs of an alleged crime in progress.

Omar Vega, a San Francisco State University student and photographer for the student newspaper, was arrested on Feb. 9.

According to San Francisco State’s student newspaper, the Golden Gate Xpress, on the night of Oct. 24, 2004, five students found a set of lost car keys, located the car, and unlocked and entered it. The students allegedly took CDs and money from the vehicle. Vega told the Xpress he took several photographs of the students entering the car, but “was acting as a photojournalist and not directly involved in a crime.”

At a Feb. 11 news conference Vega said he was only trying to chronicle freshman antics at his college dorm. “I did not break into the vehicle or enter the vehicle,” he said.

Vega was arrested just hours after filing an appeal of his eviction from an on-campus dormitory for violating his housing agreement. Both Vega’s arrest and preceding eviction resulted from pictures he took of the alleged car burglary.

Vega was taken to jail, released about four hours later and arraigned in San Francisco Superior Court the next morning.

“He pled not guilty and plans to mount a vigorous defense,” said Vega’s lawyer, Emilia Mayorga. University spokeswoman Ellen Griffin said all five students allegedly involved in the burglary were arrested and booked on Feb. 9 and Feb. 10.

Vega’s photographs of the crime stem from a photo story of freshman life he was working on for the Golden Gate Xpress. He spent about three months taking pictures in and around campus, but the university’s office of housing and residential services took issue with some of his pictures. A “conduct advisory letter” issued to Vega by the university on Dec. 2 said there had been three incidents in which Vega’s photography was “deemed disruptful” by university housing staff. These incidents included his photographing a former student’s memorial service, an instance in which a student was trapped in an elevator, and the inside of a dining facility on campus, according to the letter.

According to Mayorga, on Dec. 9 the Xpress published Vega’s pictures of a student throwing up in a dormitory bathroom. The next day, Director of Residential Life D.J. Morales requested a meeting with Vega to discuss how he had violated policies and regulations of the student housing license agreement by photographing the alleged car burglary that had occurred a month and a half earlier.

According to a Los Angeles Times article about Vega’s eviction, the Golden Gate Xpress staff decided against printing Vega’s car burglary pictures, but he published them independently on a Web site for photojournalists,

Vega was told he had violated his housing license agreement and had until Jan. 31 to vacate his dormitory room. He later moved into an off-campus apartment.

Vega appealed his eviction to the Office of Enrollment Planning and Management just a few hours before he was arrested on Feb. 9.

“The timing is suspect,” Mayorga said. Although the two incidents happened on the same day, she said there is no direct evidence that the housing department and police were working together, but she and Vega are “pretty confident” that the housing department assisted the police.

University spokeswoman Denise Springer said Vega’s eviction is punishment for his involvement in an alleged crime, not because he published pictures of it.

“The university doesn’t condone the actions of students who break the law,” Springer said. “He was involved in a crime–breaking into another student’s car, and we deal with this in a very strong and effective process.”

Ken Kobre, a photojournalism professor at San Francisco State, said he does not believe Vega’s photography was criminal.

“I don’t see how in any way a photographer who is recording something helps a burglary,” Kobre said. “I think that’s a joke.”

Vega’s supporters believe his eviction might have more to do with his controversial pictures than with his alleged involvement in a crime.

“I think [the administration] wanted to get him out of that dorm,” said Kobre, who said Vega was exposing what really happens inside the dorms. “They did not like the fact that he was recording what was going on there. And [the car burglary] is the issue they’ve chosen to come down on because this is the one they decided they might be able to do something about.”

Vega’s former dormitory, Mary Park Hall, is designed to “offer an ideal introduction to university life” and is one of two residence halls reserved for freshman students under the age of 20, according to the housing and residential services’ Web site.

“As a general rule, San Francisco State University does not evict students from housing for taking photographs,” said Griffin, who would not comment on whether the other students involved in the alleged car burglary were evicted.

The investigation of the car theft was turned over to the San Francisco District Attorney’s office on Jan. 12, and misdemeanor charges were brought against Vega on Feb. 10. A pretrial hearing will take place on March 2 and a trial is scheduled to begin April 8. According to Vega, the university will weigh his eviction appeal within the next few weeks.

–By Diane Krauthamer