Take a photo, go to jail
Photographer for Chico State newspaper arrested for doing his job
Exercising what he believed to be his right to take photos in a public venue, Chico State University student Misha Osinovskiy apparently clicked his shutter one time too many early Sept. 1, because four hours later he found himself sitting in the Butte County Jail, charged with obstructing a police officer.
Osinovskiy, a photographer for the Chico State newspaper the Orion (see Guest comment, Page 4), was on assignment taking photos of students enjoying the first weekend since school resumed when he came across an undercover Alcoholic Beverage Control police officer issuing a citation near the corner of Fourth and Chestnut streets.
“There was a big party right across the street,” Osinovskiy explained this week. “I was on the sidewalk, and [the undercover officers] were in the street handing out a citation. I think it was for public peeing.”
Osinovskiy said he snapped a photo, and one of the officers looked up and shone his flashlight on the photographer.
“I took another picture, and he said, ‘Go away or I’m going to take you to jail,’ “ Osinovskiy said. “Í hesitated, but then I took another picture, and he dropped what he was doing and came over and handcuffed me, pushed me against a truck and took my camera off my shoulder.”
The officer, whose name is Jerry Berenger, also took Osinovskiy’s camera bag, within which were rolls of exposed film.
Berenger told Osinovskiy that taking his photo while he was in his role as an undercover officer put him in jeopardy and could “get him killed.”
“He asked me if I knew he was a police officer,” Osinovskiy said, “and I told him, ‘Well, you’re writing tickets, and if you put two and two together it’s not hard to figure out.”
The two officers asked Osinovskiy who he was working for. When he told them The Orion, Berenger’s partner asked for a press pass. Osinovskiy told him he didn’t have one yet because it was the beginning of the semester.
Berenger, Osinovskiy said, then told his partner, “I’m gonna hold him for 148.9,” which, according to the California Penal Code, is “giving false representation of identity to police officer.” And that penal code is written on the citation.
Within minutes a white police van arrived, Osinovskiy’s photo was taken and he was hauled to the Chico Police Department, where he was detained in the holding cell for the next three hours.
Osinovskiy, whose family emigrated to the United States from the Ukraine 10 years ago in search of a better life, said he was a bit stunned as he sat in the holding cell.
The irony of his family moving here to achieve greater freedom was not lost upon him, Osinovskiy said. “I thought about that while I was sitting in jail. I knocked on the cell door and asked the policewoman who answered why I was being held. She said it was because I lied to a police officer.”
A Sept. 4 story in the Enterprise-Record quoted an ABC spokesman as saying the officers arrested Osinovskiy because they feared for their safety after a crowd of “up to 100 people” gathered and began to chant “Free Misha.” Orion adviser Dave Waddell disputed that account and said his students told him the cops outnumbered the students.
“What happened was a couple of guys who knew Misha walked by as he was getting handcuffed and they said, ‘Free the Russian.'”
After about three hours he was transported to the Butte County Jail, where he was placed in a room for the next hour or so before he was told he would be released on his own recognizance. His court appearance is set for Sept. 20. If convicted he faces a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
Orion editor Jen Cooper said she was concerned about the effect the arrest could have on the future of the newspaper.
“The last thing we want is for reporters to pull back and not be aggressive,” she said. “We don’t want them to break the law, but we don’t want them pulling back.”
Cooper said she doesn’t think a photographer for a non-student paper would have been treated the same and that Osinovskiy was not given the same respect a photographer for The Sacramento Bee or Enterprise-Record would have received.
Repeated calls to the local ABC office went unreturned, and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey did not want to comment until he had seen the arrest report. He did allow, however, that there is a difference between undercover police work in which information is gathered and plain-clothes police work in which arrests are made.
Kent Pollock, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento, said he found it surprising that the police “seem to be holding to their plan.”
“I would have thought they would have issued an apology and moved on by now,” he said. “We are looking for an attorney for the kid right now. The first thing he needs is an attorney with a demand that the charges be dropped.”
He questioned the undercover agent’s reasoning behind the arrest. “What on earth would an undercover agent be doing trying to make arrests if he was trying to stay undercover?”
Pollock said anyone has the right to take a photo in a public setting, credentials or not. “Apparently,” he said, “[Osinovskiy] knows the law better than the cops up there do. We will do everything we can to help out.”
He called the arrest of Osinovskiy "beyond chilling."