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Lawyers Threaten LA County Sheriff With Lawsuit Over Seizure Of Student Photographer’s Equipment

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Pablo Unzueta is a freelance photojournalist and a student at Cal State Long Beach. (Courtesy Pablo Unzueta)
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A UC Irvine law clinic says the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department violated a student journalist’s constitutional rights by unlawfully seizing his camera and phone, while he covered a protest in September near Compton.

Pablo Unzueta, a freelance photographer and student at Cal State Long Beach, was on assignment for the campus newspaper, covering a protest over the killing of Dijon Kizzee by sheriff’s deputies in September, when he was arrested after deputies called the protest an unlawful assembly.

Unzueta said deputies seized his iPhone and a Nikon D800 camera during the arrest. He was released about six hours later, but he said the Sheriff's Department did not return his equipment.

A college advisor suggested he reach out to the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that provides free legal assistance to student journalists and educators.

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Staff from the center connected Unzueta with the Criminal Justice Clinic at the UC Irvine School of Law. The clinic contacted the Sheriff’s Department directly and Unzueta got his camera back. But its memory card -- which Unzueta said included two years worth of freelance work for the Voice of OC, the Washington Post, and the student newspaper at Mt. San Antonio College -- was missing.

“When your livelihood is taken away, and there's nothing done about it... obviously you're going to feel hopeless,” Unzueta said.

The Sheriff's Department, he said, claimed it didn’t have the memory card. Unzueta said because of the way the camera is designed, it would have been very hard for the card to come out accidentally.

Last week, the Intellectual Property, Arts & Technology Clinic - a sister group at UC Irvine School of Law - sent a letter to Sheriff Alex Villanueva accusing deputies of unreasonable seizure, and threatened a lawsuit if the department doesn’t return Unzueta’s phone and memory card.

“It's illegal to keep [a journalist's] equipment without a court order,” said UC Irvine law professor Susan Seager, adding that there are even some protections for non-journalists when equipment is involved.

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She said Unzueta’s case, and other incidences of excessive force by law enforcement officers against journalists in the L.A. region, is troubling.

“I don't think there was any reason to arrest him. He was leaving the protest,” Seager said. “They violated his 4th Amendment right and they violated his 1st Amendment right to be documenting things in a public place.”

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to LAist's request for comment.

UPDATE, Nov. 12, 1:20 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify that the Criminal Justice Clinic at the UC Irvine School of Law contacted the Sheriff's Department to retrieve Unzueta's camera.

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