U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Student photojournalist arrested, equipment seized during LA protest

Incident Details

Date of Incident
September 8, 2020
Case number
Case Status
Type of case

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Release Date
Unnecessary use of force?


Was the journalist targeted?
Status of Seized Equipment
Returned in part
Search Warrant Obtained

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
May 18, 2023 - Update

Photojournalist’s phone searched after arrest, warrant confirms

The cellphone of photojournalist Pablo Unzueta was searched by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after his arrest at a September 2020 Black Lives Matter protest, a review of a newly unsealed warrant by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker confirms.

The search warrant and an affidavit in support of the warrant were released in May 2023, more than 2 1/2 years after the incident, and following an August 2022 motion to unseal filed by the First Amendment Coalition and independent news organization Knock LA.

The warrant was also used to search the 16 other cellphones seized during the protest over the shooting death of cyclist Dijon Kizzee.

The media organizations said that the sheriff’s department had fought the release of the materials for over two years, “in violation of California state law and the First Amendment, which ‘creates a presumptive right of public and press access to court criminal records, including search warrant records.’” The release only came after former Sheriff Alex Villanueva was ousted in a November 2022 election and replaced by Robert Luna, who acceded to the unsealing.

Susan E. Seager of the UC Irvine School of Law, who represented Knock LA and the coalition in the case, said the timing shows that the department never had a good reason to seal the warrants in the first place.

The coalition noted in a later statement that police records “confirm that the agency was aware it was targeting two people, Julianna Lacoste and Pablo Unzueta, who identified themselves as journalists, raising press rights concerns. … [T]he fact both journalists have said they verbally identified themselves as press, should have put pause on the probe or, at a minimum, prompted the department to make disclosures to the judge to ensure press rights were protected.”

California shield law protections prohibit the use of warrants against journalists, the coalition said, and the U.S. Privacy Protection Act limits when the government “can pilfer through protected newsgathering materials.”

David Snyder, executive director of the coalition, added: “While we are grateful the public can finally see these documents, they should have been able to do so long ago. … [W]hat did the police tell the judge who issued this warrant? Now this crucial question can be answered, and accountability for any unjustified arrest and seizure can at long last begin.”

September 18, 2022 - Update

LA photojournalist receives $90,000 settlement in lawsuit against the county, sheriff’s department

The Los Angeles County Board of Claims approved a $90,000 payment to photojournalist Pablo Unzueta to settle his lawsuit against the county, its Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Sept. 18, 2022.

Unzueta was documenting a Black Lives Matter protest for his school newspaper at Cal State Long Beach in September 2020 when deputies assaulted and arrested him and seized his equipment. The UC Irvine School of Law Intellectual Property, Arts and Technology Clinic filed the lawsuit on his behalf in October 2021.

According to court records reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Unzueta and the county reached a tentative settlement agreement in April 2022, and a judge granted the parties five months to file a dismissal of the action or further updates on the progress of their settlement efforts.

While no formal motion for dismissal has been filed with the court as of publication, the Los Angeles County Board of Claims voted to approve the settlement during a meeting on Sept. 18, according to a press release shared with the Tracker.

“It’s already difficult being a student photojournalist and fighting for your voice within the margins of the journalism industry,” Unzueta said in the statement. “Being deliberately targeted by the police gave me no choice but to stand up for myself.”

Villaneuva denied any wrongdoing and the settlement does not include any admission of liability. The Sheriff’s Department also maintains that it does not have Unzueta’s memory card in custody, asserting that it must have been lost in the course of the photojournalist’s arrest.

Susan Seager, Unzueta’s attorney and the head of the UC Irvine School of Law Press Freedom Project, told the Tracker the negotiations included implementing new First Amendment trainings for deputies, but the department refused. It did agree to send two emails to all Sheriff’s deputies, focusing at least one on releasing those arrested for non-violent misdemeanors.

As part of another related suit, Seager filed a motion to unseal the search warrant the Sheriff’s Department obtained the day after Unzueta, another journalist and more than a dozen other individuals were arrested in 2020. Seager said at least three of the cellphones seized from the arrestees were searched under that warrant. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 17.

Unzueta told the Tracker that it had been a long road, and he is relieved to have the lawsuit finally settled.

October 22, 2021 - Update

LA student photojournalist sues the county, sheriff’s department following arrest and loss of equipment

Student journalist Pablo Unzueta filed a lawsuit against the County of Los Angeles, its Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Alex Villanueva and 10 deputies on Oct. 22, 2021, following his September 2020 arrest and equipment seizure.

“The is a civil rights action challenging the Los Angeles Sheriff Department’s (“LASD”) illegal arrest, jailing, and strip-searching of a student journalist, seizure of his camera and cellphone, and ‘loss’ of his camera memory card in violation of his First Amendment right to gather news regarding deputy activity in public places, particularly during protests against deputy brutality and misconduct,” the lawsuit states.

In addition to damages, the suit asks for an injunction barring the LASD from engaging in similar conduct in the future, an annual deputy training on the First Amendment rights of journalists and the implementation of new policies barring deputies from opening or searching journalists’ electronic devices.

March 1, 2021 - Update

Charges dropped against LA student photojournalist; some equipment still not returned

Student journalist Pablo Unzueta told Columbia Journalism Review, a partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, that the Los Angeles district attorney dropped the misdemeanor unlawful assembly charges following his September 2020 arrest.

The journalist, whose equipment was also seized during his arrest, said that he obtained a pro-bono lawyer from the UC Irvine Law Clinic and was able to get his camera gear back within two months after his arrest and his phone within a 4-month period. His memory card, however, has not been returned.

“The UC Irvine Law Clinic will be filing a claim this month in regards to my arrest and missing SD card,” Unzueta told CJR.

September 8, 2020

Pablo Unzueta, a freelance photojournalist and video editor for California State University, Long Beach’s newspaper, the Daily Forty-Niner, was arrested while documenting protests in the South Los Angeles area on Sept. 8, 2020.

Unzueta told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he was following a group of protesters as they gathered for the fourth consecutive night outside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department following the fatal shooting of Dijon Kizzee, a Black man, by deputies on Aug. 31.

At approximately 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 8, Unzueta said, deputies declared the protest unlawful and ordered the crowd to disperse. Following the order, Unzueta said he saw deputies firing tear gas and flash-bang grenades into the crowd around the intersection of Normandie Avenue and West Imperial Highway.

Unzueta said officers pushed the crowd north on Normandie as they advanced, and that many of the protesters began splitting off and dispersing.

“I didn’t know the area that well so I made a left into this neighborhood on this very narrow street,” Unzueta said. “The sheriffs would get on the trucks and then the truck would speed up through the street and then they would start firing more [flash-bang grenades] and then more tear gas.”

“I kept ducking behind cars while I’m running so I wouldn’t get hit.”

Unzueta said a few minutes passed as he kept looking for a way to get back to his car, which was parked near the Sheriff’s Department, but realized that he was stuck on a long, narrow block.

Two sheriff’s vehicles pulled up at approximately 9:30 p.m., Unzueta said, and deputies began arresting the demonstrators that remained.

“This was sort of a ‘holy shit’ moment for me, and I immediately identified myself as press just to avoid getting tackled or being shot with a rubber bullet,” Unzueta said.

He said that after a couple of deputies saw his credentials and camera and didn’t stop him, he thought he would be allowed to leave and began to head back the way they had come to return to his vehicle.

“I start walking on the sidewalk and that’s when an officer from up above in the truck said, ‘Hey! Grab that guy!,’” Unzueta said. “Again I yelled, ‘Press, press, press!’ And that’s when the officer...just grabbed me, threw my camera on the ground and ripped my backpack off my back.”

Unzueta told the Tracker he was wearing press credentials from Mt. San Antonio College, where Unzueta used to be a student, and his College Media Association badge, and repeatedly told the deputies to call the newspaper’s adviser.

During the course of his arrest, Unzueta said that officers tightened his metal handcuffs so tightly that he lost all feeling in his hands, and that they called him demeaning names and slurs. Unzueta said deputies then pushed him into the back of a department van, causing him to fall on and rupture multiple pepper balls. The officers left him to struggle to breathe amid clouds of pepper powder, he said.

Unzueta also alleges that some of the officers used their personal cellphones to photograph him and other detainees.

“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department values the media and highly respects the freedom of the press,” Department spokesperson Deputy Trina Schrader told the Tracker in an emailed statement. “Please be aware an administrative investigation has been launched into the circumstances surrounding this incident. A lieutenant from South Los Angeles Station has been assigned and will be contacting Mr. Unzueta to investigate these allegations.”

Unzueta said deputies seized his iPhone and Nikon D800 camera. He said he was handcuffed for about two hours. He was transported to the South Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station where he was booked at 10:30 p.m., and then transferred to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.

Unzueta estimated he was in police custody for 10 or 11 hours. His booking data, reviewed by the Tracker, shows he was released the following day with a citation. A copy of the citation shared with the Tracker shows Unzueta was arrested for unlawful assembly, a misdemeanor, and was ordered to appear in court two days later.

Unzueta said his equipment and cellphone weren’t returned to him upon his release.

The Student Press Law Center, a Tracker partner organization, connected Unzueta with the Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. LAist, part of Southern California Public Radio, reported that the clinic was able to secure the release of Unzueta’s camera, but the memory card — which Unzueta told the Tracker contained two years worth of freelance work — had been removed.

Unzueta said deputies first claimed that the camera hadn’t contained an SD card and then that it may have fallen out when the deputy threw it to the ground during the arrest. Unzueta disputed both of these assertions, and said the design of the camera makes it nearly impossible for the memory card to fall out.

In a letter sent on Unzueta’s behalf, the clinic asked that the cellphone and memory card be returned and for assurance that the case wouldn’t be presented to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office for prosecution, a copy of his arrest report and an apology from the department.

“Sheriff’s deputies had no basis to arrest Mr. Unzueta,” the letter reads. “A truck full of deputies passed by, and a deputy pointed at Mr. Unzueta and said, ‘Get him.’ Mr. Unzueta repeatedly identified himself as a member of the press and as a student journalist, displaying his student press badge, but the deputy who arrested him ignored him.”

Unzueta confirmed to the Tracker that he still hasn’t regained complete feeling in his palms more than two and a half months later, attributing the numbness to the overly tight handcuffs.

The Long Beach Press Telegram reported on Nov. 17 that the department hadn’t responded to the letter, according to one of Unzueta’s lawyers.

“I’ve been photographing protests since the Trayvon Martin protest, which was in 2013 and I was 17 at the time. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I never thought I’d have to experience something like I experienced on September 8th,” Unzueta said.

Unzueta told the Long Beach Post that while he has always had a passion for photography, he was shaken by the incident.

“I don’t feel safe going out anymore,” Unzueta said. “This is the last thing I want to do.”

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