Photojournalist arrested, equipment seized while documenting homeless encampment
Freelance photojournalist Jeremy Portje was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors and a felony while documenting a homeless encampment in Sausalito, California, on Nov. 30, 2021, according to an officer from the Sausalito Police Department.
Portje was filming for a documentary about homelessness in Marin County, according to the Pacific Sun, a weekly newspaper in the county. A witness identified as a volunteer at the encampment told the Pacific Sun that an officer was following Portje and deliberately stood in front of his camera as he tried to film.
The volunteer told the newspaper an officer grabbed Portje’s camera without provocation, and appeared to accidentally hit himself with the equipment.
“The officer reacted to the camera hitting him,” the volunteer told the Pacific Sun. “He started punching Jeremy.”
Portje attempted to defend himself from the blows but was quickly forced to the ground and placed under arrest, the newspaper reported. At some point during the altercation the officer threw Portje’s camera to the ground. No equipment damage was mentioned in initial reports of the incident.
In footage of Portje’s arrest published by the Pacific Sun, the photojournalist can be heard saying, “Why are they doing this? Because I asked them questions?”
Neither Portje nor his attorney responded to requests for comment.
Portje’s camera can be seen lying on the pavement behind him as two officers work to place him in handcuffs while a third keeps the growing crowd back as voices can be heard shouting “let him go” and “don’t hurt him.”
An officer from the Sausalito Police Department told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that Portje was arrested shortly after 5 p.m. and charged with resisting an executive officer, battery on a police officer and battery on a police officer with injury. If convicted on all charges, Portje faces up to $5,000 in fines, three years imprisonment or both.
Charles Dresow, a criminal defense attorney representing Portje, told the Pacific Sun the photojournalist spent the night in jail and was released the following morning on $15,000 bail.
“My journalist client ended up on the ground,” Dresow said. “It’s clear the Sausalito police used force to arrest a journalist. To say this is an outrage of constitutional proportions is an understatement.”
When reached for comment, Sausalito Mayor Jill Hoffman told the Tracker officers were called to the park to respond to a disturbance and that Portje had interfered with police activity, injuring a police sergeant in the process.
“We have shown that we support and respect the right to free speech,” Hoffman said. “What is unacceptable is impeding a police investigation and injuring a member of our department.”
Hoffman confirmed that Portje’s camera equipment was seized as evidence.
The Pacific Sun reported that the three officers who arrested him were the same officers who arrested two homeless people for camping in a park two weeks prior. According to the newspaper, Portje had recently made a public records request for the body camera footage from that incident.
The Sausalito Police Department sought and were granted a search warrant for electronic devices belonging to freelance photojournalist Jeremy Portje on Dec. 9, 2021, in likely violation of California’s shield law.
Portje was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors and a felony while documenting a homeless encampment in Sausalito on Nov. 30. His camera equipment, including two memory cards, and his cell phone were seized as evidence.
On Dec. 7, David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, wrote a letter to Sausalito Mayor Jill Hoffman, Police Chief John Rohrbacher and Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli, advising them that California’s reporter’s shield law bars law enforcement from seizing or issuing search warrants for journalists’ unpublished work materials.
“The seizure of these materials was almost certainly a violation of California and federal law,” Snyder wrote. “The Sausalito Police Department should be on notice that it cannot, under state and federal law, view any data contained on any devices it seized from Mr. Portje.”
Sausalito Police Detective Davin Rose sought and was granted a search warrant on Dec. 9, allowing police to review materials on Portje’s Canon camera, two camera memory cards and iPhone. Portje was only notified of the search warrant days after it had been executed.
The warrant included searching his phone’s emails, texts, notes, voicemail, location data and internet search history for the day of his arrest.
Portje’s defense attorney, Charles Dresow, told the Pacific Sun he intends to file a motion to quash the search warrant and said he is outraged that police are alleging Portje was a part of a conspiracy.
“It is beyond the pale of logic that they alleged there was a criminal conspiracy,” Dresow said. “It’s absolutely offensive to everything our Constitution stands for that law enforcement would use a process of the court to allege a conspiracy when a journalist is filming police activity in public. What is he [Portje] conspiring to do — show what Sausalito police are doing?”
The Marin County District Attorney announced on Dec. 28, 2021, that no criminal charges will be filed against freelance photojournalist Jeremey Portje, who was arrested after a confrontation with police officers while documenting a homeless encampment in Sausalito, California.
Portje was arrested on Nov. 30 on suspicion of battery on a police officer and resisting arrest while filming at an encampment in Marinship Park. In a statement, prosecutors said that after obtaining a search warrant to examine Portje’s seized cell phone and video camera, the DA’s office ultimately declined to review the materials and determined there was not enough evidence to pursue charges against Portje.
“While we take all allegations of assault on a police officer seriously, in this case a team of veteran prosecutors who reviewed the case found that the evidence did not show beyond a reasonable doubt that Portje intended to injure the officer,” District Attorney Lori E. Frugoli said.
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the DA’s office and police department agreed during a hearing on Dec. 22 to return Portje’s property back to him, assuring that nothing had been searched.
“The police should never have had this material in the first place and should never have been able to get a search warrant to search it,” Snyder told the Chronicle.
Editor’s Note: On Jan. 4, 2022, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Pacific Sun reported that an internal police memo suggested that Portje’s equipment was searched despite law enforcement officials stating that the items would be returned unexamined.
The memo, disclosed by Portje’s attorney Charles Dresow, stated that an investigator downloaded the contents of Portje’s cell phone and visually inspected his camera and memory cards before delivering the items to a Computer Crimes Task Force. The memo was sent to District Attorney Lori Frugoli on Dec. 21, 2021.
According to the Chronicle, Dresow said downloading the cell phone data could be considered a search and the data could still be examined by police officers at any time. He also said he is prepared to argue in court, if necessary, that copies of downloaded files be destroyed and the items returned to Portje as soon as possible.