On February 4th 2010, photographer Jonas Lara an Art Center Graduate and former United States Marine, was photographing 2 graffiti artists painting a mural in Los Angeles. An LAPD helicopter spotted the group, then a patrol car came in and arrested Jonas and the Graffiti Artists (or vandals depending on how you feel about graffiti). He was initially charged with Felony Vandalism which was later lowered to a misdemeanor and then changed to Aiding and Abetting which carries a 1 year sentence. His jury trial is set for May 12th (Tuesday).
This story has been bouncing around the internet for a little while now and I’ve wanted to write about it, but not without talking to a lawyer first. PDN has a story (here) that does little more than gloss over Jonas’s side of the case. I wanted to understand what rights journalists have in these types of situations so I asked the Photo Attorney, Carolyn E. Wright a couple question.
First, here’s what Jonas told me about the photography project he was working on:
I had been working on this graffiti series for about 5 years now as part of a larger project on the Los Angeles Art Scene. Documenting the life that no one gets to see, an underground culture that operates at night. A lot of what interested me is the camaraderie shared between different graffiti artists and the way they looked out for each other. In a way it reminded me of my experience in the Marines and training in the field and doing night movements. Of course there is a great level of excitement that goes along with these types of actions as well but for me I wanted to tell a story I felt wasn’t being told.
Next, here’s the email exchange I had with Carolyn:
APE: Is there some kind of shield law for journalists that would apply in a situation like this?
The Shield Law has to do with the inability to prosecute a journalist who fails to disclose a source.
APE: Certainly, important work has been done by photographers documenting illegal activities, but I assume you know going in that you might get in trouble with the law at some point. Are there laws to protect journalists in this type of situation?
I’m not a criminal lawyer but, of course, had to study it in law school and I have taken/passed several bar exams that test on the subject.
The state is prosecuting Jonas for vandalism under California Penal Code Section 594.
The state may be arguing that Jonas was an accomplice, solicited the crime, attempted the crime, or was a conspirator to the crime. Here are my notes on those crimes:
a) Accomplice Liability
(1) Accomplices are liable for the crime itself and all other foreseeable crimes. (a) But someone is not guilty of accomplice liability just because he is present when the crime is committed.
b) Inchoate (referring to something which has begun but has not been completed – ape) Offenses
(1) Solicitation: asking someone to commit a crime. (a) Crime of solicitation ends when you ask them. (b) Conspiracy: if someone agrees to the solicitation. (c) Sol/consp merge into consp.
(2) Conspiracy: people must be pursuing an unlawful objective. (a) Elements (Conspiracy requires an agreement to commit a crime between two or more people, an intent to agree, an intent to commit a crime, and an overt act. A conspirator is liable for all reasonably foreseeable crimes committed in furtherance of the conspiracy): (i) Agreement (doesn’t have to be expressed) (people don’t have to know each other) (ii) Intent to agree (iii) Intent to pursue the unlawful objective (iv) Consp doesn’t merge with the substantive offense. (v) Liability: each conspirator is liable for all the crimes of other conspirators if those crimes were committed in furtherance of the conspiracy and were foreseeable.
(3) Attempt: specific intent plus a substantial step beyond mere preparation, in the direction of the commission of the crime
But if Jonas can prove that he was just there and didn’t agree to the crime, then he should be able to get off.
APE: Ok but what if you witness a crime and do not report it, is that something journalists should be concerned with?
No, there is no duty to report a crime.
If you want to help Jonas out, here’s a page where you can donate to help cover his legal costs: http://jonaslaradefensefund.org
I think it’s important for photographers to realize that you are not guilty of a crime just because you are present when the crime is committed and that you have no obligation to report the crime.