Home View from Underground Unlawful arrest for subway photography costs city $30K

Unlawful arrest for subway photography costs city $30K

by Benjamin Kabak

Taking pictures in the subway isn’t illegal, but good luck convincing NYPD’s transit officers of that fact. In what has become a series of similar cases, the City of New York had to pay out $30,000 to a man who was unlawfully detained for snapping some subway shots.

Fox 5’s John Deutzman reports that Robert Palmer was at the Freeman Station in the Bronx last year when cops ordered him to stop shooting photos of the subway. When Palmer respectfully declined to erase his pictures and showed the cops his copy of the subway rules that say, “Photography, filming or video recording in any facility or conveyance is permitted,” he was handcuffed.

The cops then booked Palmer for not one but three violations. He was charged with, according to Fox, “taking photos,” “disobeying lawful order/impeding traffic,” and “unreasonable noise.” Palmer says he wasn’t being confrontational or rude, and the three charges were eventually dropped. The NYPD admitted that Palmer shouldn’t have been charged, and Palmer sued the city for his unlawful detainment. The actions of police ignorant on the law cost taxpayers that $30,000.

To make matters worse, as Fox 5 news crews were filming this story, Deutzman had his own run in with a transit authority worker. He reports, “Some guy who claimed to be a transit supervisor actually put his hand over the camera’s lens to try to stop the Fox 5 camera guy from recording video. When the so-called supervisor figured out the crew was with Fox 5, he backed off saying he didn’t realize we were ‘working press.’

As the report notes, the NYPD has sent a memo to its service members reminding them that photography is legal. Transit has done the same. Yet, still the cops and employees haven’t gotten the message. How many more taxpayer dollars will it cost the city before the rules become the rules?

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Sacramento Photographer February 10, 2010 - 12:51 pm

Wow, arrested for taking pictures. I have run into this a few times, but never arrested.

petey February 10, 2010 - 2:07 pm

so fox points out the right to film in the subway – as well they should. it’s nice to see fox defending our civil liberties, and who better, as that particular major media organization has done absolutely nothing over the past decade to promote the police state mentality which gets people arrested for legal activity.

Aaron February 10, 2010 - 2:13 pm

I always wonder if I’m eventually going to catch some grief for taking photos. I’m not too bad about it but I still like to take some occasionally, particularly if I’m at a station I haven’t been at before.

AK February 10, 2010 - 4:37 pm

If you do catch grief from the NYPD/MTA Police or other law enforcement personnel for taking pictures, you should contact the New York Civil Liberties Union. We filed a lawsuit against the NYPD in 2007 which led to a seismic shift in NYPD’s policies vis-a-vis public photography (not only within transit networks). Gothamist caught up with our former client earlier this year:


Aaron February 10, 2010 - 11:14 pm

Thank you :). I’m actually an attorney (not barred in NY, only in California and Arizona) but I definitely appreciate all the work that the regional CLU’s do :). To my memory there was a similar lawsuit against the MBTA in Boston, and they were much harsher about the prohibition. I actually did catch grief there while I was in law school, though never received a fine to dispute.

AK February 11, 2010 - 9:45 am

You are welcome! The seminal MBTA case about First Amendment activity is Jews for Jesus v. Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth., 984 F.2d 1319 (1st Cir. 1993). It is worth a read if only to see how insane the MBTA’s rules were (prior to the suit) about First Amendment activity (i.e. a complete ban).

boblothrope February 12, 2010 - 10:29 am

Here’s the MBTA’s photo policy:

It says that amateur photography is legal, but that T employees are supposed to stop all photographers, ask them for ID, write down their ID details, and call the MBTA police to report it.

miguel miquel April 28, 2013 - 4:05 am

cta. was recently told by a cya driver on the blue line videoing out of the front window is illegal. I know this to not be true . how do I confront other train drivers that this is not the case and I have a right to document my journeys to share with family and friends. (and whoever else will watch)>

Scott February 10, 2010 - 4:50 pm

This exact situation happened to me some time back, less an arrest. I noted it over at Rangefinder Forums, where there are a number of other subway/street photographs in NYC.

The Boss February 10, 2010 - 7:25 pm

What gives. He gets arrested for taking pictures, he wasn’t evening using a tripod. Now their competence cost the city $30,000 or $283.33 per tax payer. What next, they’re going to arrest a tourist for taking pix in the subway?

Thanks a lot NYPD for violating the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Aaron February 10, 2010 - 11:16 pm

How did you come to $283.33? There’s more than 106 people in the City of New York.

Erik G. February 10, 2010 - 11:19 pm

I am so bummed I was in a rush one weekday afternoon, back in 2004, when I was told by a Port Authority policeman that I could not take pictures of the then-under-renovation TWA terminal (T5) at JFK. I would have been happily carted off for the $30,000 payday. Well, there is always next time!

Don Anon February 11, 2010 - 12:03 am

The Port Authority is a very different operation. There is no photography allowed in the PATH system, for example. The MTA rules don’t apply on Port Authority property.

AK February 11, 2010 - 9:55 am

PANYNJ has been constantly modifying its rules vis-a-vis photography since 9/11. However, for those interested, the Port Authority Bus Terminal was found to be a traditional public forum open to First Amendment activity in Wolin v. Port of New York Authority, 392 F.2d 83 (2d Cir. 1968). The Supreme Court later distinguished the Bus Terminal from Airport Terminals in International Soc’y for Krishna Consciousness v. Lee, 505 U.S. 672 (1992) (finding JFK Terminals are nonpublic forums subject only to a reasonableness review). Ultimately, whether the PA’s rules against photography are constitutional is highly dependant on the particular property affected and whether said property has traditionally been a place where First Amendment activity takes place or the government has opened it up to certain First Amendment activities. Neat stuff!

Sara February 11, 2010 - 2:10 pm

I am glad this guy stood up for himself.

Agent_C February 11, 2010 - 3:59 pm

The real travesty here is not that this gentlemen was wrongfully cited for taking pictures, but that the city is so gutless when it comes to fighting lawsuits. $30k seems like *way* too much of a settlement for a minor incident like this.

Your tax dollars at work!


Benjamin Kabak February 11, 2010 - 4:55 pm

Disagree. Let’s work with an assumption here.

1. The City wasn’t going to win the lawsuit because, clearly, Palmer was wrongfully arrested.

So with that in mind, the city could have not settled and put itself at the whim of a jury. The jury award would have far exceeded $30,000, and the city would have had to pay Palmer’s costs as well. Then, the city could appeal and hope for a reduction in the jury award but would still have to pay legal costs. By then, taxpayers would be footing a bill far greater than $30,000. It makes far more sense to settle.

Getting slapped in handcuffs and wrongly charged is hardly a minor incident.

Agent_C February 12, 2010 - 12:14 pm

On what basis do you assume that a jury would award more than $30,000? If I were on that jury, I’d award far less, as this guy was little more than inconvenienced.

On a related note, I think the City of New York should adopt a policy of not settling cases like this AT ALL. Which means if you sue the City, your case will have to be decided on the merits. I promise you, the caseload would drop dramatically if you actually had to have a case in order to collect taxpayer money! Many of these ‘slip-on-the-sidewalk-sue-the city” type cases would simply never be brought if the lawyers knew they’d have to go before a jury of New Yorkers. A_C

don anon February 12, 2010 - 12:52 pm

Good luck with that. The Giuliani administration adopted something close to your “no settlement” rule. It led to a pile of cases the city wasted scarce resources defending. One of Bloomberg’s first initiatives as mayor was to clear up the logjam of unresolved cases by acting rationally and settling when the city was going to lose.

Mike November 24, 2012 - 9:03 pm

That was the secret to Giulianis success,…he had been a lawyer for the US govt. He would do things knowing full well that by the time anything got to court, he would be long gone. It was also an effective bullying tactic. “I am the mayor,..sue me if you dont like it” only 1 of 100 called his bluff. The lawsuits didnt get thru the courts til he was gone

Calico D'Nikonian August 7, 2016 - 12:13 pm

Actually, Ghouliani was known to have prosecuted KNOWN innocent people, hid exculpatory evidence in an effort to ruin lives, mostly Blacks and Hispanics. The VAST majority of those cases were overturned on appeals. Ghouliani was nothing more than a tyrant and ctrol-freak.

bocheball March 28, 2012 - 12:17 pm

years ago, I was stopped outside a supermarket when they thought I had stolen something. I opened my coat and showed them I had nothing. They surrounded me and made me reenter the store to show them where I had put it. I did. Outside a man witnessed the whole thing and commented I should’ve never have gone back in the store. I called my friend, a lawyer, who urged me to find the witness, but he was gone. Still I SUED, for illegally detaining me and intimidating and we WON the case for over 2,000.00. That was for an incident I wasn’t even arrested, yet harassed by some thuggish employees. SUING is what keeps everyone honest, including and especially NYPD, although you might disagree when you see the recent and frequent criminal activity by many of NYPD members.

boblothrope February 12, 2010 - 10:26 am

Well, even if it was illegal, IMO it was not an offense worthy of an arrest. They could have given him a summons.

Calico D'Nikonian August 7, 2016 - 12:18 pm

Summons for what? To inconvenience a member of the public? Aren’t police officers Public Servants? If so, they SERVE us, members of the PUBLIC that pay their good salaries and great benefits! And here I thought police worked to protect us and not act like “the enemy,” and I also thought the police worked FOR us, not against us… Sheesh!

Adam February 12, 2010 - 11:01 pm

Cops love to flex their muscle just to show they have power and privileges. Just ask Guiliani, Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, or any one of the NYPD cops who drive over medians to make U-Turns (as I saw one day). Why don’t they do their job going after murderers and thieves and people doing unsafe things instead of harassing ordinary citizens and putting on security theater?

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