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Conspiracy Charges May Stalk Paparazzi

L.A. County prosecutors consider filing felony cases against photographers who put celebrities at risk.

June 10, 2005|Megan Garvey and Tonya Alanez | Times Staff Writers

Alarmed by what they say is a new generation of paparazzi willing to take dangerous risks to get celebrity photos, Los Angeles law enforcement officials say they are considering a new tool: felony conspiracy charges.

Los Angeles County prosecutors have been exploring the possibility of bringing conspiracy cases against individuals or companies they believe may be orchestrating some of the riskiest photo ambushes.

"There is a very real concern that this type of behavior may constitute a danger to the victimized celebrity and others," said William S. Hodgman, head of the Los Angeles County district attorney's target crimes unit. "We are aware that vehicles are used quite often in efforts to stalk celebrities. We also are aware of numerous incidents where the celebrity and or others had children with them who were put in jeopardy."

Police and prosecutors say that escalating aggressiveness over the last two years has prompted a new look at how existing laws are applied.

They cite two recent cases involving Lindsay Lohan, a much-photographed teen star, and Reese Witherspoon, 29, best known for her lead role in the "Legally Blonde" movies.

On April 16, Witherspoon told police she was confronted and later followed from her Westside gym by paparazzi. At one point, she said one or more of the photographers hemmed in her car outside a gated community off Sunset Boulevard, forcing her to seek help from a nearby security guard. No arrests or charges have been brought in the case, which police said was still under investigation.

On May 31, police arrested Galo Ramirez, 24, on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon for using his minivan to ram Lohan's Mercedes-Benz as she tried to make a U-turn near the Beverly Center shopping mall. Ramirez was an employee of Beverly Hills-based Fame Pictures. Several other paparazzi were on the scene almost immediately to take pictures and videotape of Lohan, 18, upset and still in the vehicle after the collision.

Among questions authorities are asking in the wake of these incidents: Is anyone instructing these photographers in how to obscure their identities, such as by blocking license plates? How do numerous photographers end up in the same place at the same time? Are they working together to force celebrities off the road? If so, might prosecutors be able to charge them with a felony?

"Part of the investigation is to see where the connections are, how closely they worked together, if at all," said Lt. Paul Vernon, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Since taking over the target crimes unit about three months ago, Hodgman said his examination of paparazzi cases has led him to believe there may be criminal activity beyond obvious misdemeanors such as trespassing.

Cracking down on aggressive photographers, who can earn tens of thousands of dollars or more for a single shot, has long eluded authorities. First Amendment protections shield paparazzi, many of whom consider misdemeanor violations the cost of doing business. The most seasoned veterans know how to play just within the rules. And celebrities are often reluctant to press charges -- well aware of the symbiotic relationship they have with the celebrity press.

Law enforcement officials cited the tactics used in the Lohan and Witherspoon cases as part of a pattern that has piqued their interest. Other factors they said are being looked at include who employs the photographers and supplies their cellphones, rental cars and equipment. In cases in which paparazzi have been arrested, investigators said, they would look to see who pays the bail. Depending on evidence, said one district attorney official, it might be possible to make a felony case against not only the individual photographers, but also higher-ups on the celebrity media food chain.

The agency employing the photographer arrested for assault in the Lohan case, Fame Pictures, referred questions to attorney Alan Croll. Croll, who also is representing agency President Boris Nizon, said every effort had been made "to set and comply with standards for good conduct, although accidents can happen."

In a statement, Croll went on to say, "That's why they're called accidents. Their photographers understand that they are reporters with a camera, but their job is not to create stories, provoke celebrities or initiate physical contact. They do a difficult job and bring pictures of celebrities to the public, which is clearly something the public wants."

Vernon, the LAPD spokesman, conceded that the possible use of conspiracy charges was a "novel approach."

But, he said, police investigators have begun to see evidence that such incidents are not random but orchestrated. Officials said photos or videotape taken at the conclusion of confrontations between paparazzi and stars usually capture celebrities in an emotional state, probably adding value to the image.

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