U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Photojournalist arrested, equipment seized while covering protest

Incident Details

Date of Incident
June 1, 2020
Location
Atlanta, Georgia
Case number
1:21-cv-04629
Case Status
Settled
Type of case
Civil

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
Atlanta Police Department
Charges
Detention Date
Release Date
Unnecessary use of force?
No
Status of Seized Equipment
Returned in part
Search Warrant Obtained
No
Actor who seized equipment
Law enforcement
REUTERS/Dustin Chambers

National Guard troops were part of the law enforcement response to protests in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, on June 1, 2020. Photojournalist Sharif Hassan was arrested, his equipment seized while documenting the demonstrations against police brutality.

— REUTERS/Dustin Chambers
May 8, 2023 - Update

Atlanta agrees to pay photojournalist $105,000 to settle lawsuit following 2020 arrest, equipment seizure

The City of Atlanta agreed to pay freelance photojournalist Sharif Hassan $105,000 to settle his First Amendment lawsuit against the city and three Atlanta Police Department officers. The case was formally dismissed on May 8, 2023.

Hassan was arrested while documenting protests near downtown on June 1, 2020. Atlanta was under a three-day curfew order as demonstrations broke out across the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota the week before. Hassan was charged with violating the city’s curfew order, and his camera, at least two lenses and two loose memory cards were seized by police.

The photojournalist was held overnight at the Atlanta City Detention Center and released the following day, but his camera and lenses were not returned until a week later. An attorney for Hassan told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in February 2023 that the two SD cards were never returned to him, nor have police acknowledged custody of them. The charges against Hassan were dropped in January 2021 for “evidentiary reasons.”

Attorneys filed a lawsuit on Hassan’s behalf in November 2021, and announced that they had reached a settlement in May 2023. A copy of the agreement was shared with the Tracker.

In addition to the settlement payment, the agreement includes a requirement that the City Law Department consider specifying that media are exempt from any future curfew orders.

“I brought this lawsuit to hold the City accountable for hastily creating a police state while leaving our rights as journalists as an afterthought,” Hassan said in a statement released to the media.

“Unlawful arrest while being separated and handcuffed through the night is something that should not happen to members of the press. The goal is to ensure that our rights are protected in the future.”

Neither Hassan nor his attorneys were immediately available for additional comment.

June 1, 2020

Freelance photojournalist Sharif Hassan was arrested and his equipment seized while covering protests in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 1, 2020, according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf in November 2021.

Protests against police violence broke out across the country in the summer of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

On May 30, then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a curfew order for the subsequent three days. The order, which had no explicit exception for members of the media or other essential workers, ordered residents off the streets between 9 p.m. and sunrise.

According to his lawsuit, Hassan — whose work has been published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and National Geographic Adventure, among others — arrived at The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change near downtown Atlanta in the late afternoon. He then photographed the planned protest as the crowd marched toward the CNN Center.

Officers with the National Guard, Atlanta Police Department and FBI were stationed downtown, according to court filings by the City of Atlanta.

Shortly before the curfew went into effect, a line of APD officers began pushing the crowd north on Centennial Olympic Park Drive, followed by a line of National Guardsmen, Hassan’s lawsuit states. Hassan and other members of the press walked behind the line of APD officers and ahead of the National Guard.

As the demonstrators and police passed through an intersection, an unidentified man ran down the side street and was pursued by officers who arrested him. Hassan followed and began photographing from a safe distance, according to his suit. Without being given any directions or an order to disperse, two officers approached Hassan and made him lie face-down on the ground.

According to disclosures filed by the city, Hassan was directed to leave or face arrest but refused to do so. The filing also asserts that Hassan did not identify himself as a journalist to the arresting officers, nor did he provide “media credentials or any other paraphernalia that would identify him as such.”

Hassan’s suit states that he identified himself as a member of the press when officers zip-tied his hands behind his back and told him that he was under arrest for violating the curfew order.

Hassan’s camera, at least two lenses and two loose memory cards were seized by police. The photojournalist was held overnight at the Atlanta City Detention Center. Hassan was released in the late afternoon on June 2, but his camera and lenses were not returned until a week later.

One of Hassan’s attorneys told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in February 2023 that the two SD cards Hassan had been carrying in his pocket were never returned to him, and police have neither acknowledged that they are still in custody nor provided explanation. Hassan was not available for comment.

According to the suit, Hassan appeared for three hearings beginning in September 2020. At the final hearing in January 2021, prosecutors dropped the charge against him for what they described as evidentiary reasons.

Attorneys filed the lawsuit on Hassan’s behalf against the City of Atlanta and three APD officers in November 2021.

“Hassan’s arrest, detention, and prosecution have chilled him from documenting political protest events due to concern that he will again be wrongfully arrested,” the lawsuit states. “By failing to explicitly exclude basic newsgathering from the facial scope of the Atlanta Curfew Orders, the City, without factual basis, deprived Hassan and other working members of the media of their First Amendment press freedoms while the public lost its eyes and ears on events of significant importance.”

According to court filings reviewed by the Tracker, Hassan and the city are engaged in settlement discussions as of early 2023.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]