A California law aiming to crack down on reckless paparazzi failed in its
first legal test Wednesday, as a judge threw out two charges against a
photographer accused of chasing Justin Bieber on the 101 Freeway through the
San Fernando Valley.
Paul Raef was the first person charged under the 2010 law, which Superior Court Judge Thomas Rubinson said was overly broad.
Delivering his ruling in a Van Nuys courtroom, the judge said the law is problematic because it covers news-gathering activities protected by the First Amendment. He said lawmakers should simply have increased the penalties for reckless driving rather than targeting celebrity photographers.
Hypothetically, Rubinson said, wedding photographers or even photographers rushing to a portrait shoot with a celebrity could face additional penalties if charged under the new statute.
Despite the two charges being dismissed, 31-year-old Raef still faces misdemeanor counts of reckless driving and failing to obey a lawful order. Police said he didn't pull over when an officer signaled him.
Court dates could be set on those charges soon, but the entire case will be put on hold if prosecutors appeal.
Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the City Attorney's Office, said lawyers there were reviewing the judge's ruling and had not decided Wednesday if they would appeal.
Prosecutors realize there is a "delicate balance between the First Amendment protections and public safety," Mateljan said.
Appealing is a risk for the city attorney, because if Raef wins on appeal, the case would set precedent, said Raef's lawyer, David S. Kestenbaum. As of now, the ruling only applies to Raef's case.
Prosecutors said Raef, a freelance photographer, drove well over 80 mph as part of a "pack" of six vehicles chasing Bieber on July 6. The singer was easy to spot on the 101 as he drove a chrome Fisker Karma, a sleek hybrid sports car that costs more than $100,000.
Raef cut his Toyota RAV4 across lanes, drove on the shoulder and forced his way into lanes despite having no merge room, all of which led other drivers to brake or swerve, prosecutors said.
Kestenbaum said this should have been an ordinary traffic case all along, since reckless driving laws already allow people to be held accountable for their behavior on the roads.
"You can't single out a single part of society and say that person can be punished more because of what their occupation is," Kestenbaum said.
The law makes it a separate crime, punishable by six months in jail and a $2,500 fine, to violate certain traffic laws "with the intent to capture any type of visual image, sound recording, and other physical impression of another person for a commercial purpose."
On its own, reckless driving carries only 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Calling the law unfair, Kestenbaum said, "It was written with input from entertainment law firms in Los Angeles, signed by a governor who used to be -- or I guess now is again -- an actor."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the law in 2010. It was sponsored by then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, now a Democratic member of Congress from Los Angeles.
The California Highway Patrol cited Bieber for speeding in the July 6 chase, which was reported by about a dozen witnesses, including Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine.
Zine, whose district is in the western Valley, said Bieber seemed to be going 100 mph, though the CHP only charged him with going 80.
Police said they tried to pull over both Raef and Bieber, but only Bieber stopped. He was cited for speeding and released.
Bieber called 911 about 30 minutes later to say he was being followed by the same Toyota. Police said they went to a downtown L.A. parking garage and found Raef gathered with other paparazzi. The CHP referred the case to prosecutors, who filed charges a few weeks later.
Wednesday's court ruling came a day after Bieber was charged with another traffic violation. Sheriff's deputies said he made an unsafe turn and had an expired registration on a white Ferrari he was driving through West Hollywood on Tuesday evening.
Zine said Wednesday he believes an anti-paparazzi law is needed, since the existing reckless driving law doesn't deter them. If the current law is held unworkable, he said, the Legislature can pass a modified one.
If someone were killed or injured during a paparazzi chase, Zine said, people would probably ask, "Why don't we have a law to prevent this?"
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