Independent photographer stopped for secondary screening, devices seized
Independent photographer Tim Stegmaier was stopped for secondary screening and had his electronic devices confiscated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on June 28, 2019.
Stegmaier was flying in from Shanghai, China, to Detroit, Michigan, after a photojournalism trip to the Philippines when CBP officers pulled him aside for additional screening. In an account published by the ACLU of Ohio titled, “Photographs and the First Amendment. My Harrowing Journey Through U.S. Customs,” Stegmaier wrote that the officers didn’t provide any explanation for why he was flagged.
While detained, the officers asked Stegmaier for permission to search his computer.
“It is possible that I could have avoided five months of psychological stress with three words: GET A WARRANT,” Stegmaier wrote. “But I was sleep-deprived, and innocent of any crime. So I let them.”
The officers took his phone and camera as well. Stegmaier wrote that he waited 4 ½ hours — causing him to miss his connecting flight to Cincinnati, Ohio — before an officer read him his Miranda rights. The officer proceeded to ask questions about why he was in the U.S., where he was planning on traveling next and whether he had had sex with children while abroad.
The questions presumably stemmed from photos Stegmaier had taken on his reporting trip. In a petition in support of Stegmaier dated Sept. 3, the ACLU of Ohio wrote, “In Manila, he captured numerous images of abject poverty and desperate conditions. He observed and photographed children swimming in filthy water and industrial waste, surrounded by heaps of plastic garbage and fecal matter.”
The ACLU went on to contextualize the photos: that the presence of unclothed children in public in the Philippines is “unremarkable” and images of such scenes routinely appear in journalistic and other publications.
When Stegmaier attempted to explain all of this to the CBP officers, he wrote, they were skeptical of his point-and-shoot camera and asserted that he should have “papers” showing that he is a “real” photographer. Stegmaier also wrote that the officers told him that he should consider himself lucky because the supervisory officer believed him enough not to arrest him.
At the end of his detention, Stegmaier wrote that the officers retained possession of his computer, camera and smartphone, along with the tens of thousands of photographs contained therein.
“It ruined my trip, as I was forced to halt the planned work that I was going to do in the U.S.,” Stegmaier told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. “I also felt that the seizure damaged my credibility with a couple people that I was in the process of delivering work to. It was debilitating to not have access to my equipment.”
A month later, Stegmaier received an official Notice of Seizure notifying him that his equipment had been seized because it contained “visual depictions of sexual exploitation of children.”
In addition to the formal petition on Stegmaier’s behalf, a coalition of First Amendment organizations — including the National Press Photographers Association and National Coalition Against Censorship — wrote a letter to CBP urging the return of his equipment.
“The possible disregard by DHS of federal and state level constitutional protections granted to Mr. Stegmaier strike at the heart of the most vital rights we strive to defend,” the letter reads. “The seizure of Stegmaier’s laptop, camera, and iPhone has caused untold damage to his professional life, forcing him to halt all of his work activities.”
Three months after his equipment was seized, Stegmaier wrote that CBP sent him a letter admitting that there was nothing illegal about his photos. The agency promised to return the equipment on the condition that Stegmaier sign a release waiving his right to sue for the wrongful detention and seizure, or else go through a formal hearing process that could take multiple months.
Stegmaier arranged to pick up his equipment in Detroit, during which CBP stopped him again and asked to search his belongings.
“Luckily, I carry the ACLU’s petition letter with me, right next to CBP’s letter admitting I did nothing wrong,” Stegmaier wrote. “I showed these letters to them, and eventually they let me go.”
He wrote that when he left Detroit, he took his equipment and his pictures with him.
“I don’t have a problem going to other countries to work,” Stegmaier told the Tracker. “I only have a problem returning home to a place where I am supposed to have civilian rights.”