TAKING SANTA PHOTO GETS PHOTOGRAPHER ARRESTED - "How Crazy Is This?"

(12/16/2009)

OPINION/COMMENT By Bob Weaver

Everyone seems to have a camera these days, even on their cell phones.

Photo takers surely have some wariness, because at times it has become risky business in West Virginia, even when the photos are of Santa Claus.

Or photos of several WV state policemen parked illegally in Kanawha County.

Or taking photos of a federal building in Calhoun County (except the photos weren't of a federal building) or just taking plain-view photos from public right-of-way.

The photography problem could be risky, amid a record number of cases against police having surfaced in West Virginia during 2009, everything from sexual abuse to beatings, with the WV legislature continuing to ignore the call for a Civilian Review Board.

While most policemen are responsible and dutiful officers, a culture of protectionism has evolved over several years.

In Calhoun County cases, internal reviews have called for the suspension of an officer for one day with pay.

It is not illegal for any person in West Virginia to take a plain view photo on public ground, or private ground with permission.

Police do set up perimeters around scenes which are legally respected.

Award-winning photographer Scott Rensberger was arrested last week at the Charleston Towne Center Mall after taking photos of Santa Claus and a choir.

The incident escalated with Charleston Town Center security officers, who said there was a complaint about the photographer taking photos of children.

Rensberger was taking a photo of a Christmas scene, which could have had some children around the side of the photo.

Rensberger was taken to the ground and handcuffed by at least four officers from the Charleston police and mall security.

It is not illegal to take photos of children, although police could question a photographer regarding motives for photography.

"I thought, how crazy is this, all these officers for taking pictures of Santa Claus," Rensberger said.

Rensberger was charged with battery on a police officer and resisting arrest, after he struck (police said "slapped') the officer's hand while wrestling over his camera, the officer attempted to block his taking photos.

In another case, Michael Kidd, a Putnam County man, took a picture of West Virginia State Police cruisers illegally parked behind the Kanawha County Judicial Annex.

The photo led to a confrontation with a state trooper, according to a lawsuit filed by Kidd last week.

Kidd says that he got out of his car to photograph several cruisers that were illegally parked, including taking up space in a handicapped zone.

While Kidd was taking pictures, Trooper Jason Garnes demanded an explanation for what he was doing, and Kidd told him that he was photographing illegally parked police vehicles.

Garnes placed Kidd against the wall, and told him to stay in that position, and "made contact with Kidd in an offensive manner," including searching him, according to the suit.

"After consuming a considerable period of time using State Police and other law enforcement resources in an attempt to find a legitimate means by which to further detain [Kidd] and finding none, [Garnes] cursed [Kidd] ... and issued a threat against him by stating to [Kidd], 'I'll be seeing you again sometime,'" the suit states.

Following photo problems with the State Police in Calhoun County, the agencies answer over a camera confiscation in 2009 was not based on any law, but simply because they can do that.

In other Calhoun cases, provocation by an officer resulted in arrest over public photography.

There is no penalty in WV over the violation of Freedom of Information laws.

This has simply resulted in consistent stone-walling of what seems to be basic public information.

In Calhoun County, the WV State Police, after the Hur Herald used the Freedom of Information Act, even denied numerical information related to property crimes or the number of ATVs stolen in the county.

Clinging to my 9th grade civics book from Calhoun High, the contents of which are barely taught today, I still believe in constitutional rights for all people, balance of power, personal liberties and protection, separation of power and a myriad of other "guarantees" promised to US citizens.

It seems those basic rights and liberties are teetering at times.


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