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Tuesday, 11 May 2010


Well, thanks for posting the opinion of a lawyer who knows what the law is.

And I do hope Mr. Lara doesn't get jail time BTW, only a fine if he's found guilty. Please let us know how the trial ends.

I agree citizens have no duty to stop a crime but we all would hope that a citizen would intervene to some extent to hinder a crime. In spite of the general cynicism and our fear of intervention we hope that citizens would play some role in crime prevention - at least in phoning the police. I agree we are on dangerous ground here if the photographer is prosecuted but this person is hardly to be admired. His intention seems to me to take advantage of the act in some way - or even to promote it. It would be a sad day when photographers lose any moral sense. Photgpraphers are not recording devices - the cameras are. The photographer chooses what to record, when to click, what to take. The taken photograph is not a mere act of observation. Equating this with the heinous persecution of photographers in the UK is simply not on. I take a photograph of a building and having my collar fingered by the law is not the same as meeting up with people intent on commiting a crime and photographing the act. I still hope he gets off. We have far greater threats to photography to ward off than this. It does our cause little good.

Thanks for all the info Mike (on California anyway). I agree with your conclusion from the information given. And if that's true, it seems that the question of where you draw the line as a photographer on documenting crimes might be purely an ethical one, and not a legal one.

It's still interesting, though, in the extremes. If "arriving and leaving with the perpetrators is not enough to make someone more than an innocent bystander" no matter the crime, then it wouldn't be illegal for me to follow a murderer as he kills someone, as long as I don't encourage it or participate in any way. Amoral, sure, but not illegal. Do we want that to be illegal? Hmm.

"Seems to me that the most pertinent information here is "citizens have no duty to stop a crime or even to report it," and that arriving and leaving with the perpetrators is not enough to make someone more than an innocent bystander."

Well sure, but he didn't exactly just happen upon a crime in progress, he had prior knowledge of the incident, and accompanied the artists.

Let me be clear, I think it frivolous and silly but it's not really about photographers rights is it?

Interesting case.

If we simply change the "vandalism" to "assault" I'm sure many would change their opinions. Certainly if you see it randomly you are not obligated to report. But if you actively know of graffiti (or a beating) and catch a ride with the assailants you are complicit. We are simply working like our cameras to push the gray areas to where we like them.

I read that the crime for which Mr. Lara was arrested has been changed to breaking a fence. If so, it might be that the police realized they had no legal standing with their first charge and picked something that would stick.

I am convinced that law enforcement only likes cameras when they control them (e.g. in London). Too often they have been a source of embarrassment as in Rodney King, Times Square police shoving cyclist, RNC demonstrations in NYC, etc.

As I understand the facts of the case, the photographer was aware that the person who committed the crime was going to do so and went with him, to the scene, with the idea of photographing the crime in progress. So he cannot claim to have been incidentally in the same location. This was some ongoing project on the part of the photographer. So look at it this way, you decide to photograph armed robbers while they work, you contact one and he tells to be at a certain gas station at 11PM to get your photographs. You are and are arrested during the commission of the robbery….doesn’t sound so good that way. Does it?

Your anonymous lawyer remarked that “citizens have no duty to stop a crime or even report it”. I profoundly disagree.
A citizen may have no legal necessity to stop a crime (may or may not depending on the applicable law) but in my opinion as a citizen he or she has a clear duty to do so.
If I were the sole possessor of knowledge that another person or persons was about to rob a bank, commit a murder, beat someone up – then my duty as a citizen is to inform the police so that they can stop that action. And the severity or otherwise of the intended crime does not affect wherein my duty lays.
On the other hand if I share the advance knowledge of the intent to commit a crime with the public in general and the authorities in particular (eg knowledge of an illegal political demonstration publicised in advance in the newspaper) then I may in that particular case assume that I have no duty to inform the police and may actually choose to witness and possibly record that event as an onlooker. That would be for me to decide, but my citizen’s duty is satisfied by the knowledge that those in legal authority are already aware of the intention of the participants to break the law.
But advance sole personal knowledge of the intent by others to commit a criminal act (as opposed to stumbling across a crime in progress and being powerless or unwise to attempt to stop it) makes it my duty as a citizen to be an informer – my silence would make me morally (and maybe legally) complicit in the crime.
I might choose to ignore my civil duty but that is my decision based on other moral factors I choose to take into account (e.g. I might approve of the motivation of the illegal political demonstration) but it is still a civil duty that I have ignored and I have to be very sure that in my opinion the other moral factors sufficiently outweigh my civil duty.
Being a citizen means you live in a society with laws that are there for your protection. Be careful when and how you decide you have no duty to help uphold them.

I would love to see a cross reference between people's opinions of this minor property crime ('...it's just an abandon building people!') and the existential threat to photography that was the Orphan Works bill.

At the end of the day, it's real easy to be generous with other people's stuff.

...And let me add, I don't think this guy should go to jail. But he should have to stand by his actions; even if it's just a nominal fine. Heck, I don't even think the graffiti artists should be punished past being forced to clean up the building to the owner's satisfaction. But artistic sacrifice and bravery means nothing if it can be done in consequence free, utter and complete safety.

Who is Jonas Lara?

Here's what he says about himself.

"On February 4th 2010, I was photographing 2 graffiti artists painting a mural in Los Angeles. I was arrested and initially charged with Felony Vandalism. My cameras, my tools with which I earn a living were taken as evidence. My charges were later lowered to a Misdemeanor and the changed to “Aiding and Abetting” which carries the same sentence as the crime of Vandalism/Graffiti. I have gone through the several stages of this case and my next step is the Jury Trial. If I lose my case I can face up to a Year in Jail and have my license suspended.

I need your help raising money to cover costs to hire a private attorney and related legal expenses. Anything helps !

I served in the Marine Corps (Service Connected Disabled Veteran) Graduated from Art Center College of Design / BFA in Photography Recently accepted into The School of Visual Art / MFA Program. Part of the artist portrait series was featured in an Exhibition put together by the Cultural Affairs Department of Los Angeles.

For verification purposes
Court Case # 2217689


Ask yourself if it's possible that the photographer ever said 'Hey man, I think I see that cop headed back this way'. If he did, at that moment, he may well have crossed a line.

It's the sort of stupid thing anyone might do.

I have to agree with the general sense of commenter Rod, and add that the individuals who drew the interest of the police in this situation were definitely vandals, not artists. I do not understand why it is so difficult for some people to make this distinction. Would our website host welcome finding impromptu spray-paint "art" on his car, had he had parked it in some public space? I doubt it. Why should it be different for people who own property in areas where graffiti vandals operate?

Having said that, if this case is bogus under the existing law, which it appears to be to me (as a layman), I certainly hope that the photographer is let off and his equipment returned. I also hope that he finds a better use for his time and talent.

"...innocent bystander"?

Here is someone who knew a crime was going to take place, knew who was going to commit the crime, knew where and when it was going to happen and in fact coordinated with the criminals in order to be sure he was there to shoot it. And while in this particular case of an abandoned building (which hopefully means that no one will have to pay hundreds of dollars to remove the graffiti), it could be argued that the damage he did by keeping his mouth shut was minimal (though I can't help but wonder if all the locations he's shot this way are abandoned buildings), the fact is that he didn't do anything to prevent the act specifically so that he would be able to personally benefit from it.

He may not have committed a crime as defined by the California Penal code, but he was anything BUT an innocent bystander.

(And I have to admit that, like his public defender, I got a bit of a laugh from his defense strategies as related in the original PDN article - to wit, his perceived "...rights as a photographer..." I never knew photographers had rights over and above the general public, but now I'll know to keep my camera with me at all times so that if I ever get in trouble with the law I can call on my photographer's rights. "Step back officer. I'M a PHOTOGRAPHER!"

As for First Amendment rights, I suppose if he was doing this for a news conduit of some sort, he might have been able to try using freedom of the press, but from what I can see, he wasn't. And if his participation had been criminal, I don't think freedom of speech protects the speaker if they're committing criminal acts in order to express themselves - otherwise the graffiti artists -or possibly just 'artists'- themselves would have been immune from charges.

Maybe he can find a freedom of religion angle...)

I agree with Rod.

Lara says: "The painting would have taken place regardless whether I was there or not."

No. By being there, he could have stopped the crime.

Lara may be OK legally. He is not OK ethically.

(Seems like a good guy. I hope his sentence is nothing more than a few hours of community service. Cleaning off graffiti, perhaps.)


Rod: The camera is not going to take photos by itself. The photographer has to be neutral; the fly-on-the-wall, so to speak.

It's a little sad reading comments by citizens from a country that is supposed to be a model of rights and freedom condemning the photographer with all kinds of allusions and snide remarks.

I wonder if the photographer could enter the photos as evidence against the graffiti artist in charges of vandalism.

is it illegal to indirectly promote crime?

"'...innocent bystander'? Here is someone who knew a crime was going to take place, knew who was going to commit the crime, knew where and when it was going to happen...."

Oh, come ON. It's a MISDEMEANOR. Have you ever been in the same room with someone smoking a joint? If so, I'm sure you called the police. Ever driven in a car with someone who's driving recklessly? Ever been drunk in public? Made a scene, caused a commotion? Knew someone was going to pilfer some cheap trinket or road sign or beer advertisement or knew someone who'd announced a plan to threaten another person with harm? Ever known someone who was intending to trespass? Ever trespassed yourself? For chrissake, you all are acting like he plotted an assassination attempt or stood by as someone dismembered a baby. These are MINOR CRIMES, and anyway we are NOT discussing whether it's okay to COMMIT the crime, and we are NOT discussing how bad the crime is, and we are NOT discussing how I would feel if it were perpetrated against me--we're discussing whether it's okay TO PHOTOGRAPH SOMEONE ELSE committing the crime.

You've never had a buddy drunkenly confess a minor crime, never known someone who you suspected was going to hire a prostitute, never committed any misdemeanor yourselves? Jim, can you search your memory and honesty say you've NEVER had foreknowledge of another person committing a misdemeanor, or been present while one was committed, without promptly calling in the police and turning in whoever it was? If the answer to that is yes, you're excused. If the answer is no, one more question--think you deserved to go to jail FOR A YEAR for your part in it?



True story: My wife and I were in a gallery during an opening, and saw some people in a corner passing a joint.

I was not going to call 911.

Would you?

It's a good thing we get Jury trials because it seems like someone at the police department has decided he is guilty, unfortunately they can't seem to decide what he is guilty of, but it must be something!

This case has also hammered home the reasoning for preventing the jury from doing their own research as some of the comments relating to this case on other blogs have been amazingly stupid.

Interesting and all, I have a few thoghts after some careful consideration.
: I think the camera element is irrelevant here, we could just as well discuss this if he turned up as a spectator. Having a camera for any purpose shouldn't confer special rights as to presence - I can see special rights as to use of the resultant photographs (1st ammendment and all that). But I'm not an American.
: Whether I agree or not with the graffiti being a crime or not, it still is.
: I don't think there should be any imperative (moral or legal) for reporting of a crime. Otherwise you get into all kinds of issues of putting yourself in danger or harms way to take active measures to stop something. And I'm sure in the US 5th Ammendment issues would come into play. But that's secondary to this case, I think.
: As I see it, the important thing is how
Lara came to know of the crime. If it was second hand ("through the grapevine") then in effect he was just turning up and witnessing. No issue.
If, however, he actually discussed the issue with the taggers and went with them, then I'd say that looks a lot like the aiding and abetting and therefore worthy of a court hearing.

I certainly have lots of issues wih the police actions and the confiscation of his equipment and with the manner in which the appropriate charge was determined. Again, I think that's secondary to the issue of the charge for which he will actually be tried.

Trying to be balanced here: yes, he was poorly treated, no his photographer status doesn't confer special priveledges, and maybe there is a genuine aiding and abetting charge to address.

Mike Johnston said:

You've never had a buddy drunkenly confess a minor crime, never known someone who you suspected was going to hire a prostitute, never committed any misdemeanor yourselves? Jim, can you search your memory and honesty say you've NEVER had foreknowledge of another person committing a misdemeanor, or been present while one was committed, without promptly calling in the police and turning in whoever it was? If the answer to that is yes, you're excused. If the answer is no, one more question--think you deserved to go to jail FOR A YEAR for your part in it?


Most of the crimes you're talking about are often called "victimless." But graffiti is not victimless -- as I noted in my first post, I have to pay hundreds of dollars of year to a service that removes graffiti from my LA building. I'm not blind to the attractions of graffiti -- there's some very nice stuff on the cement banks of the LA River, for example, that I see almost every day when I'm living in LA -- but 99% of it is crap.

A much better question than yours was posted a bit further up in this thread -- what would you say if somebody tagged your car? Or your house? Are you suggesting that just because we don't know who owns the building, that it's okay? That it's okay to hit somebody else's building or car, just not yours?

I'll also say that you see a lot more graffiti in LA, especially the rougher parts, than you do in New York now (even though some of the early great graffiti writers worked in NY) because the NY cops have severely cracked down on it. Why? Because in addition to being "art," graffiti also advertises the absence of an effective police presence. The whole premise of NYPDs crackdown on minor crime is that the acceptance of minor crime leads to the development of major crime in that area, because it makes it appear that there are no cops around. When cops get tough with minor crime, the whole crime rate structure declines.

As for Jonas Lara's comment above, about how reporters or documentarians (or whatever) work, I have to say that I disagree. I once did a series of stories on burglaries, including ride-alongs with cops, raids on burglars' houses, etc., and I have to say, if I had talked to one of these burglars (lots of people knew who they were) and they said, "We're gonna hit so-and-so's house tonight, come and watch," I probably would have called the cops, or the homeowner, or somebody. Certainly would have talked to my editors about it -- it's an ethically unsustainable position, in my opinion, to know of a crime that will damage an innocent victim, and not to do something about it; not as a reporter, but simply as a citizen.

Also, Lara's in about as much danger of going to jail for a year as I am, for when I'm caught speeding. The most likely outcome will be a mild slap on the wrist (a few hours of public service), dropped charges, or a finding of not guilty.


I'll just add that in most many cases graffiti is a graphic improvement. Most warehouse and large building owners should be fined for committing excessive public blandness. All the moralizing about it being a "crime" is ridiculous. It's less harmful to society than going five miles an hour over the speed limit.

Mike, such a passionate reaction. So many all caps...

Well to begin at the beginning with your opening lines in reaction to my opening lines, a misdemeanor IS a crime. I didn't say that anyone involved had committed a felony, plotted an assassination etc., I just stated the facts as presented in the PDN article. In fact you're the one 'putting words in my intent' by saying I'm treating this like assassination or dismemberment, where I actually made a point of stating all this was 'perpetrated' upon an abandoned building, and so damages were probably minimal. You'll also note that I haven't voiced any opinion about whether or not he deserves to go to jail, because all that is irrelevant to my point.

The point I was making, again, was simply about the use of the term "innocent bystander" in describing someone who clearly wasn't. If the photographer had just happened upon the scene and started shooting, the term might have been an accurate one, but knowing about it beforehand and essentially 'scheduling a shoot' of the event pretty much disqualifies any eligibility for that term. As for your list of "have you ever"s, and to bring them back around to my point as it relates to the original story, if I had known of someone who was planning a misdemeanor, AND arranged to meet them during the act so that I could photograph it, whatever else I would call myself after the fact, "innocent bystander" would not be among my choices.

Sorry I got you so upset.


You have listed mostly victimless crimes. Graffiti is not a victimless crime.

And stealing a road sign is a horrible thing to do. It could result in a fatality.

I read the comments with much pleasure. Nice to know how much TOP readers value ethics and civility.


I'm not upset, but I will confess to being...let me choose the word carefully...amazed that so many people have such a poor understanding of the basic tenets of law and that so many people can be so confused about the basic issue at hand.

It doesn't matter how he found out about the event; it doesn't matter that he knew it was going to happen; he is not obligated to report it; he is not obligated to stop it; he cannot be an "accessory"; it doesn't matter whether each commenter (including me) personally approves or disapproves of the crime; it doesn't matter if the crime was "victimless" or not; it doesn't matter what people think should be the law; it doesn't matter if he's an accredited journalist or not; all that matters is whether by photographing it he was legally a principle in the commission of the crime under the law as it exists.

I think I just added "basic law not taught in high schools" to my list of pet peeves.


As an American, I've always been amazed at how my fellow Americans continually vote against their own best interests- over and over and over again. This has been quite the education- photo enthusiasts vehemently protesting against the right to photograph the very world around them. Rabid so called fans of Henri Cartier Bresson would have actually denied him the right to photograph in a brothel!

Meanwhile, as someone else has so brilliantly commented- the persons responsible for killing millions of animals and depriving the livelihoods of untold thousands of Americans for years if not decades to come in the Gulf of Mexico just so they could pocket a few extra thousand, will never be threatened with seeing the inside of a jail.

I have nothing against being a moral, ethical person- but why do we only hold the poor and powerless to these standards?

Reading the comments here and in the other thread has been an interesting experience. I must admit to some surprise at learning how many people believe are willing to impose extra-legal obligations upon a citizen and at the same time look the other way as the few protections afforded to them under the law are observed in the breach.

Although readers of this blog comprise a very small set of the public at large, if this way of thinking is representative of our society as a whole, then perhaps it explains why the public at large is largely acquiescing to the continuing erosion of our civil liberties and personal freedoms that has been occurring over the past decade?

Mike, your last post is a lesson from law school. So many people are utterly confused about the legal issue here. You've got it exactly right: "all that matters is whether by photographing it he was legally a principle in the commission of the crime under the law as it exists." That is all that matters. People fantasize and speculate about what the photographer might have done or said or known, when they should be asking what evidence the prosecutor had to prove a violation of the law. If the evidence shows that he was photographing the graffiti, then the prosecutor had no case.

Mike, your posts at 9.09 and 10.51 were spot on. Well said.

You know, I was in two minds whether to comment here or send you an email. There's too much fuel on this particular fire already without me adding some more. So no offence to anyone.

Roger B.


Well again, we're talking about two different things here. My point never had anything to do with the legalities of whether he was criminally guilty of anything, and it wouldn't have changed if he had been found guilty or innocent or if, as it appears he's done, he plead to a lesser charge. It was simply to point out that the term "innocent bystander" had the inaccurate implications that he had no foreknowledge, no connection to the event, other than a chance encounter while it was in progress.

You have a new pet peeve about legal education, I've always had one about, well as you put it above, words not being chosen carefully.

Anyway, I'll go away now. From comments links that is, not your site. Too much good content here to ever take it out of my daily routine.


Just my two cents.

A few commenters have approached the issue from the point of view of "what if their own building had been spray-painted" and feel aggrieved because of that. I understand. I happen to think that most graffiti is not art, just vandalism.

But do you think we should put litterers in jail for a year? Because if you're going to be worried about a handful of buildings with ugly designs on them, then you must be livid that there is hardly not a square meter of land in any city (or even remote rural countryside) that isn't desecrated by cigarette butts, empty beer cans, empty soft drink bottles, soiled diapers, fast food garbage of all kinds, etc. It's everywhere.

You're going to need a big jail.

Time for some perspective. The DA was probably hoping for some media coverage. Did they spell his name correctly? That's probably what this is really about. I hate to be so cynical, but am running out of better explanations.

The "innocent bystander" phrase was merely a part of the legal description of the one precedent that my source found and that we quoted. I thought it was interesting that arriving with and leaving with the perpetrators is not enough to establish guilt in a misdemeanor. (And no idea if he did that or not.) That's all.

I got a steady stream of private emails from lawyers all day yesterday. Was certainly an education for me....


As a general matter, I don't think the legal limits on behavior exactly coincide with the ethical limits (nor should they; laws should be limited to objectively determinable things of significant impact on others). Thus it's not inherently hypocritical to think that something that's legal still shouldn't be done (or that something that's illegal, should be legal).

In general, laws against "associating" with people are a really horrible idea. People tend to compartment their lives, and you can't know what else the people you live next door to, or went to school with, or whatever, are doing or have done.

Laws requiring people to turn in their neighbors are a horrible idea too (and beloved of authoritarian regimes).

I can understand how people responsible for buildings in heavily-tagged areas could get pretty tetchy on the topic. We had to paint out some stuff on our garage the other year (and then do some more painting to prepare for a mural being put on the garage doors, as a discouragement to future tagging).

A lot of folks are taking a moral attitude about the photographer "knowing a crime was being committed," so he has an obligation to report the crime or stop the crime. But here's a question:

Do you think that a photojournalist who chooses to travel with "enemy combatants" in order to report a story is also practicing immoral standards? Obviously they're taking their lives in their hands, but by trying to deliver a different view of the bigger story (one that we would never observe without them), have they made themselves "the enemy" as well? Because that's what you're saying happened here, that the photographer is now a criminal, because he chose to document an event in the making.

Mike Keller

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