Judge denies city request to claw back police officer photos from local media outlet

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 12: Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters in Los Angeles. LAPD Headquarter on Wednesday, April 12, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles judge Wednesday rejected a controversial request by city officials that he order a local journalist to return a flash drive of police officers' photographs after officials said they had included images of undercover officers in the collection by mistake.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff's ruling was a clear win for Knock LA photo editor Ben Camacho, who had obtained the photographs from the city through a public records request. It was also a victory for the activist group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which the city sued along with Camacho for its role in publishing the photographs online, including on its website WatchtheWatchers.net.

Beckloff's decision did not address the 1st Amendment concerns — around the freedom of the press and the right to publish legally obtained materials — of a broad coalition of media outlets. The group, which included the Los Angeles Times, had backed Camacho and denounced the city's lawsuit as an overreach.

Beckloff ruled that the city had failed to make even the most basic arguments necessary for court intervention, including that the flash drive actually included images of undercover officers whose pictures would not otherwise be subject to disclosure under Camacho's public records request.

Beyond the flash drive, Beckloff said, the city had provided no evidence for why it should be entitled to claw back electronic copies of the images that exist on the internet, as it has said it wants to do.

The City Attorney's office had brought an LAPD commander to the hearing Wednesday and said he could confirm that the production contained photos of undercover officers, as well as elaborate on who is considered undercover. Beckloff questioned why that hadn't been submitted as evidence.

"No one knows what’s on the flash drive except the city. The city elected here not to present any admissible evidence about what’s on the flash drive," the judge said. "Why would you not provide the court with admissible evidence that wouldn’t necessarily give me any information about the names of the officers or even pictures, but somebody to actually have percipient knowledge of what’s on the flash drive?"

The attorneys for Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying criticized the city for trying to spring a new witness on them.

"The city has had plenty of opportunities to submit evidence," Susan Seager, an attorney for Camacho, said at the hearing. “This is through the city’s own fault and the city’s own failing to put through evidence."

City Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto’s office declined to comment Wednesday. It has previously said its goal in filing the lawsuit was to protect officers “whose lives and families’ lives could be in grave danger as a result of this exposure.”

Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying had previously requested the lawsuit be dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP laws, which are designed to protect people from frivolous lawsuits over constitutionally protected activity. A win for Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying under those laws could force the city to pay their legal fees.

A hearing on their request is scheduled for September, according to Seager, who said they will work to get it heard earlier.

“We’re proud that the court saw through the city’s case, that the city has never defined who an undercover officer is, it’s never identified with any specificity who was supposedly undercover on the flash drive," Seager said.

Shakeer Rahman, an attorney with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, added that "the people of Los Angeles have a right to these photographs."

“This order confirms what we’ve been saying all along, which is that these records are public records that the city made public, and they belong to the public, and so we’re free to continue publishing them and so is everyone else,” Rahman said.

The Times earlier this month had joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other media outlets in a motion that said the city's efforts to claw back the photographs violated established legal protections for the media.

First Amendment experts said any court order granting the city’s demands would amount to an unlawful "prior restraint" on the publication of clearly newsworthy material that was obtained legally.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.