Artist arrested for snapping in public

Police in England and Wales have no power to delete or confiscate any image stored on a camera without a court order, the Association of Chief Police Officers said.

The statement by Britain’s largest independent police body would normally be seen by public photographers as nothing more than a helpful reminder of their rights.

Yet on this occasion, it serves as an urgent clarification of the law, as it was issued amid outrage over how a freelance artist was arrested for taking photos in public.

Reuben Powell said he was snapping the old HMOS print works in London’s Elephant & Castle last week, when he was stopped by police and searched under the Terrorism Act.

“The car skidded to a halt like something out of Starsky & Hutch and officer jumped out very dramatically and said ‘what are you doing’? “ he told the Independent.

He went onto recall how he was taken to the nearby police station and locked in a cell for five hours, but not before the lock-blade knife he uses to sharpen his pencils was seized.

His genetic material was also taken to be stored on the DNA database for his lifetime, prior to the humiliation of being led away from the area, where he lives, in handcuffs.

Powell, whose work is credited as an important part of the regeneration of the neighbourhood, was only released after intervention by the local MP, Simon Hughes.

“Reuben Powell's case is only one example of the growing use of anti-terrorism legislation as an excuse to stop and search citizens,” Mr Hughes said.

“The anti-terror laws were passed by parliament to protect the public in exceptional circumstances. Taking photographs in Elephant & Castle is neither an exceptional circumstance, nor a threat to national security.”

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who was forced last July to clarify the powers police have to stop public photography, has been asked by the MP to speak in parliament about officers’ guidance on arresting legal protestors.

Mr Hughes’ parliamentary question stems from his concern that the government’s anti-terrorism laws, particularly Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, is being used as an excuse to stop and search citizens.

“Law enforcement and the protection of civil liberties must not be viewed as being distinct from one another,” he said.

“It is as much a responsibility of the state and its officers to protect citizens from infringements of their civil liberties as it is to enforce the law.”

In a reported response to Mr Powell’s case, ACPO has said police officers are not permitted to prevent someone from taking a photograph in a public place unless they suspect criminal intent.

It added: “Once an image has been recorded, the police have no power to delete or confiscate it without a court order. This applies equally to members of the media seeking to record images”.

ACPO’s declaration should reassure jittery rail enthusiasts: figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats show almost 160,000 people were stopped by police on railway property between October 2007 and September 2008.

Of those apprehended, more than 60,000 were stopped using counter-terrorism powers, the figures show, and a further 60,000 were stopped using police stop and search powers.

Lib Dem Transport Secretary Norman Baker reflected on the figures: “The anti-terror laws allow officers to stop people for taking photographs and I know that this has led to innocent trainspotters being stopped.

“This is an abuse of anti-terrorism powers and a worrying sign that we are sliding towards a police state”.

Concerned photographers can contact the Bureau of Freelance Photographers to obtain a small pocket-sized card that spells out their rights to take pictures in public places.



8th January 2009

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