More Made Up Laws Regarding Oil Refineries

Photo by wmliu

One of the Daily Kos site’s diarists, Androsko, posted about a recent incident he and a friend experienced while taking photos outside of the Hess Refinery in Port Reading, New Jersey. While they were there to shoot a comedy sketch, the local police smelled terrorism.

A police officer pulled up and told them – surprise! – they weren’t allowed to take photos and they’d have to delete them. Why? As Androkso writes:

He responded that there were town ordinances that were mandated by the state and the Department of Homeland Security. I then asked for the specific ordinance or law, saying that I had read a lot of stories about police and photography in public places. He failed to provide me with anything specific, citing Homeland Security “stuff”.

The officer asked for their driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers, while insisting they weren’t being reported, just that he had to enter their information in the system. The photos were not deleted in the end and they parted amicably. And the harassment goes on….

A commenter points out that the canon of laws is so vast that cops can’t be expected to remember them all, further adding:

So they sometimes operate the way most of us do, sorta figuring if it seems like it might be illegal, it probably is. … Whether or not any laws got passed, it seeped into the collective consciousness, and a lot of folks have vague impressions that ‘you’re not supposed to scope out such places’. Your cop obviously had that vagueness floating around in the back of his mind.

I get that rationale; police officers are human and they can’t be expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of law. But they need to have a better-than-average one – and more importantly, if you’re stopping someone to tell them they’re breaking a law, you damn well better know which one. (And if you don’t, radio into the station, read up on laws that pertain to your district, bone up for god sakes!) This type of thing is going on all the time, and no matter how wrong, how egregious, how unlawful, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Read Androsko’s whole post here.

7 Responses to “More Made Up Laws Regarding Oil Refineries”

  1. 1 MJ June 2, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    The relevant points in regards to public and individual safety always seem to be missing here on your website. The governing law in photographing critical infrastructure is the decades old United States Supreme Court decision “Terry vs. Ohio.” Frequently challenged, seldom amended, and always eventually returned to its roots. This case will never be overturned if you talk to any knowledgeable, even slightly neutral or bi-partisan legal expert. If you are unaware, federal case law always takes precedence over written codes. Specifically, law enforcement officers may detain any persons when they have a reasonable suspicion that a criminal act has occurred or is about to occur. They may continue to detain them and investigate the circumstances of the detention until they have exhausted all investigative leads or formed the basis of probable cause for arrest. The basis for the detention is the officers training and experience as a law enforcement officer over and above that of a normal citizen. This includes informal training and information provided by supervisors in watch or shift briefings.

    FEMA had previously identified all critical sites in the United States during re-occurring surveys, continued by the Department of Homeland Security. If you are conducting activity that could be inferred as conducing surveillance or mapping of a critical site, and it is reported or observed by the local law enforcement agency, they will not ignore it; they will respond and check it out. The officers that respond will most likely be patrol field officers. They are generalists, not specialists. They will most likely follow up on their periodic training by encouraging you to move along away from the critical site. As long as they are only involved in a verbal discourse with you, and have not physically moved you from the location, they have usually not violated any laws or any of your rights. A very common mistake-a law enforcement officer may approach anyone and engage them in a conversation at any time, they have not surrendered their rights as a citizen by virtue of being as law enforcement officer to engage anyone in a consensual encounter. The individual content of their dialogue may violate Department policy, but they are not prevented from engaging in a consensual encounter, and may do so even at a call for service from a 3rd party. The officers absolutely have the right to identify you and your intentions in compliance with the case law established by Terry vs. Ohio. If you create a disturbance while they are lawfully performing their duties, they absolutely have the right to temporarily handcuff you to prevent escalation to violence; this temporary handcuffing does not automatically amount to a formal arrest resulting in charges and arraignment.

    On a personal level, I live in the middle of the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. I am a staunch civil libertarian and have been for many years. Your individual rights do not have the right to kill me. Many of the photos I have seen on your web site and related web sites would easily be very useful in assessing the security of the oil refineries and other critical sites. There have previously been numerous industrial accidents at the various refineries and it is clear that a pre-meditated act would have undesirable consequences. Your assertion that the information from your photos is available else ware does not alleviate you from the responsibility of contributing to the body of knowledge regarding the involved sites, information that could be used to the detriment of my individual safety and the safety of the public. There are many untold other opportunities for photo art and journalism that do not endanger my safety and the safety of the public.

    You do not have the right to kill me, or to contribute to the act of killing me.

  2. 2 discarted June 2, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Well MJ,

    You or law enforcement agents do not have the right to tramp on my 1st Amendment rights simply because you/them have a problem with my legal activity, which involves photographing anything in view that I find interest in from a public space, including refineries. I am also well aware of the fact a cop can approach me and begin a conversation (free speech is a 1st Amendment), however, I am not legally required to answer any of the officer’s questions and can simply walk away.

    You do know that it is illegal for a cop to force you to delete your images (violates intellectual property law), or search a person’s camera without a warrant, right? As well as make up non-existing laws based on 9/11 BS. The Patriot Act doesn’t even prohibit photography.

    Rather than trying to place blame on us for the possible demise of your existence, maybe you (as a civil libertarian) should take some personal responsibility and move yourself away from the Port of Los Angeles if your so concerned about your safety.

    I would suggest sending the above comment to google maps executives.

  3. 3 babydiscarted June 2, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I thought libertarians were supposed to be all about individual freedoms?

    MJ – Thanks for the info. But a few things seem to be missing from your assessment of our posts, namely that we do not have a problem with laws on the books that protect us from actual threats. Two guys filming a comedy sketch on a public sidewalk with a refinery in the background does not a threat make – in my view. Nor does it warrant arousing suspicions of a “criminal act.” And you’d have to be seriously boneheaded to not be able to distinguish between that and a real terrorist casing the joint (again, my opinion).

    So now, according to your relevant points, in service to that ever-nebulous threat of worldwide “terror,” our civil rights will just gradually be stripped away and we are to accept that? If that’s the case and law enforcement are totally in the right as you’ve outlined, well then I respectfully disagree. And that’s how change happens in this country; people talk about it and they disagree and they protest.

    And it is a HUGE leap to go from taking photos for personal pleasure or art to killing someone – and so strange I can’t quite believe you’d even link the two.

  4. 4 TomBrooklyn August 6, 2009 at 10:24 am


    The view of oil refineries from a public road is not sensitive information. It has probably been randomly photographed a hundred times or more already and if it hasn’t, it would be a trivial task to do so.

    If something is too sensitive to photograph from a public street or sidewalk, then a wall ought to be built around it; although even that could not stop a determined terrorist from filming, as anyone can hire a plane or helicopter to take photos from. Anyone can also just look up almost any place on earth on Google and get a satellite photo of it.

    Stopping people from taking a photographs from a public street for whatever reason they want to do so, be it artistic or journalistic, because some publicly visible place is perceived to be a potential terrorist target is simply untenable and ludicrous.

  5. 5 Paul July 18, 2011 at 11:57 am

    This happened to me yesterday, in Texas City, Texas. I stopped to photograph an historical site, complete with Texas Historical Commission markers, when the refinery security came up to tell me that if I took photographs, they’d have to “call the cops.” I told them I’d help them out, and I called the cops for them. The Texas City police dispatcher told me that if I took photographs, they’d have to come out, and if they did, I would be arrested. I asked them, “On what charge?” and she said I’d find out if I took any photographs. I told her the police could review any images I took and decide if they were safe or not and she said they didn’t have time for that. I told her that was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, and she hung up.

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