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LA's Lawsuit to Recover Police Photos May Be Unconstitutional

First Amendment Coalition says the City of LA has little recourse after a police data file was released to a reporter that contained some images of undercover officers

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The reporter who first obtained a data file containing the photographs of thousands of LAPD officers -- now at the center of several legal cases -- says the newest lawsuit, filed against him by the City of Los Angeles, will have no effect on stopping the public distribution of the pictures.

“They gotta find a way to fix it, and the way is not by asking me, specifically, for this envelope back,” Knock LA reporter Ben Camacho told the NBC4 I-Team Thursday, hours after he learned that the City Attorney's Office had gone to court to demand he return a flashdrive containing the images.

The USB flashdrive provided by the City Attorney's Office that contains the images of thousands of LAPD officers.

Camacho obtained the files after he made a public records request for the employment roster of LAPD employees, along with identification photos. The City initially refused, then provided the records last fall after Camacho successfully sued for access.

The City now says in its lawsuit against Camacho that it mistakenly included identification information and photographs of officers who worked in undercover assignments, something Camacho said he never asked for, and said he didn't know he possessed until a second public records request, filed by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, obtained the same files and posted them online in March.

“I’d rather not be scapegoated," Camacho said. "It’s really just not fair to try to throw me under the bus for doing something that is lawful.”

The City's suit, filed Wednesday by City Attorney Hydee Feldstein-Soto, also asks a judge to order Camacho and the coalition to remove any published photos from the internet, specifically those accessible on the coalition's special officer identification website, Watchthewatchers.net.

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“The city is asking the court to order Mr. Camacho and the coalition not only to return the photographs, but also, to stop posting or publishing them. That is unconstitutional censorship," said David Loy, the legal director for the First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit that advocates for the public's access to government.

David Loy in a remote video interview.
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First Amendment Coalition legal director David Loy talks with NBC4's I-Team about the City of LA's lawsuit against a reporter who obtained photos of LAPD officers.

“The government is never entitled to impose a court order imposing unconstitutional censorship. If they could not do it for the Pentagon Papers, they can’t do it here," Loy said.

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Feldstein-Soto declined to be interviewed or answer questions about the suit.

The City Attorney's Office issued a statement by email that said the exposure of the photos could put officers' lives and their families' lives in "grave danger."

"That is why we brought this suit -- to have the photos of officers immediately removed from the website and to have the flash drive containing them returned. We have no further comment," the statement said.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass would not say if she had a role in the filing of the lawsuit.

She told reporters at an event Thursday morning she was concerned for the officers' safety and for the potential that officers angered by the release will quit or retire from the LAPD -- just when the department is struggling to recruit and maintain the size of its patrol force.

“I’m very worried that with the officers who have been revealed that it might increase people leaving the department,” Bass said.

An attorney representing the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition said the city did remove the names and photos of dozens of undercover officers prior to releasing the files, but after the Watchers website was posted, the city and the union that represents most officers, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, have tried to expand the definition of 'undercover' to include virtually every officer who might have worked in plainclothes.

An LAPD spokesperson declined to discuss anything related to the photo debacle, citing the pending litigation.

Private attorney Matthew McNicholas announced earlier this week that he was taking legal action against the City on behalf of more than 300 officers who's names and photos appeared on the Watchers site.

The Protective League filed a case last week that demands the City intervene and take action to 'claw back' the images.

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