In January a private meeting occurred uniting prosecutors with law enforcement, private investigators, executive protection agents and attorneys for an intimate conversation. The media was barred.
The names of the people there could have comprised a Who’s Who in Los Angeles.
The select group gathered at the Marriott in downtown Los Angeles and looked at ways to enforce the new "anti-paparazzi" law AB 2479 that makes reckless driving acts, by those with a commercial purpose, a criminal act.
Sean Burke, the organizer of the meeting and founder of the Privacy Rights Initiative, formerly known as the Paparazzi Reform Initiative, described the atmosphere in Los Angeles as the Wild West. "It is like the gold rush before law and order arrived," says Burke. The Privacy Rights Initiative is a non-profit group of advocates and legislators for stronger laws.
“The knowledge and information that was exchanged within this group will be a direct contribution to many of the arrests made by peace officers, private investigators and executive protection agents,” says Jesse Martell, a private investigator and former Los Angeles police officer who may provide evidence of the criminal behavior at a future court date. “Every person who attended this meeting already had an understanding and concern of these reckless acts that have placed the public and the lives of celebrities in jeopardy.”
Called the PRI Paparazzi Roundtable, a few of the select group of 30 professionals who met to discuss strategies from gathering evidence to implementing it, included Andrew Wallet, attorney and co-conservator of Britney Spears' estate, William Hodgman, deputy district attorney, Matthew Schonbrun, deputy city attorney, Michael Dundas, deputy city attorney, Commander Kevin McCarthy, Los Angeles Police Department assistant commanding officer, Lt. Mark Rosen, Beverly Hills police traffic bureau commander, Sgt. Joe Jakl, traffic services detail with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Bill Moulder, legislative unit with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and officers Mel Flores, Jose Gutierrez and A. Bender from the California Highway Patrol.
“It was very productive,” says Barry Mozian, president, Talon Executive Services, a corporate security and private investigation firm.
“It’s the first time we were able to do something that hasn’t been done before with law enforcement coupled with prosecutors there to discuss these issues and really have a meeting of the minds with the ability to see each other’s faces, address what the concerns were and if they are concerns. This is not based on the whims and wants of a celebrity. It’s about privacy and public safety,” he says.
Burke, who helped draft the language of AB 2479, organized the Jan. 27, 2011 event for the exchange of information between parties who might not ordinarily get a chance to meet but who may be the most instrumental in the prosecution and conviction of paparazzi who break the new law.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Burke. “I was impressed by the turn out, interest and sincerity. They all wanted to be there. It showed law enforcement and prosecutors really care. They were the highest ranking people along with some regular officers. It really dispelled that tired old notion about a government that doesn’t care.”
Burke says no one wants to see another death like Princess Diana and everyone knows it’s coming.
“It’s going to be a pedestrian,” he says. “Probably a mother and a daughter.” He says people showed up for the meeting to avert that death and all the car accidents, craziness and dangerous behavior.
Martell, private investigator, says, “This meeting symbolized a unity between government officials, law enforcement officers, private investigators and executive protection agents in an effort to stop the dangerous and reckless acts that have been committed by paparazzi. With strategies now in place, we are prepared to move forward in the apprehension and conviction of those who violate the new law.”
Meeting prompts strategy
Cmdr. Kevin McCarthy, Los Angeles Police Department, says the stronger the legislation gets the better to where taking a chance is no comparison to the reward. He says the laws up until now have been traffic violations. If you can take a picture of Jennifer Anniston getting out of her car in a skirt and sell it for $25,000, a $300 ticket for a traffic infraction isn’t going to deter someone from trying to get that photo.
The commander describes the PRI Paparazzi Roundtable as “a good conversation.” He says talking to members of private security quashed some of the things they (the police) thought were happening and security brought interesting comments.
McCarthy says regarding the prosecutors at the meeting, “They are big on this and proud of what they have, but they need a lot of evidence. It’s more the kind of evidence that security (and private investigators) can provide.”
Enforcement has been difficult without the videotape and eye witness accounts that private investigators and security may soon provide to law enforcement toward a conviction. For example, Los Angeles is a big city: Celebrities can pull over, call 911, but by the time police arrives there’s only a story and no paparazzi, says McCarthy.
“It is a public safety issue. Speeding, running lights, double parking, it’s a quality of life. It’s important to us. We have families that drive the same streets they (celebs) do.”
Sgt. Joe Jakl, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, whose jurisdiction includes Malibu, Calabasas, Hidden Hills and other areas frequented by celebrities says, “It was a very good meeting. It was great getting all these players involved and creating communication between entities. The paparazzi will find their little loopholes in the new law and by having this dialogue we can find those loopholes.
“This is a public safety issue. It’s not only putting the celebrity in danger to get that million dollar shot. They are abandoning their cars in the street to get that shot. The paparazzi are very, very brave.”
He says also that part of the safety issue sometimes becomes the celebrities themselves: When they realize they are being pursued, they accelerate and it doubles the chances of something going terribly wrong.
AB 2479 and the meeting are a step in the right direction, he says, and a foot in the door to legislation that can still be improved.
Meanwhile, the sheriff’s department will respond to calls, dispatch a unit or have the caller come into the station if nearby.
Considered by some as the experts on paparazzi in California, Lt. Mark Rosen, traffic bureau commander, Beverly Hills Police Department, also spoke at the meeting and says it was very good, very productive and a good start.
“The paparazzi is an important and timely issue in Beverly Hills. We’re not targeting a specific (working) class. The paparazzi have the right to work, the right to earn a living and the celebrities need them for their careers. Any negativity at all revolves around public safety. We encounter paparazzi almost daily and it’s not always a negative contact.
Our job is not to get in between paparazzi and the celebrities. We look to are they conducting things in a lawful way, are they breaking any laws or threatening public safety?”
Rosen says AB 2479 is a new element and an enhancement to existing law. Unlike infractions, that require an officer witness a violation to enforce the law, AB 2479 gives celebrities and their security a chance to document a case after the incident and make a crime report.
“An infraction needs to be witnessed by an officer to make a report. A misdemeanor crime is subject to an arrest. A private person can make an arrest,” he says.
The Beverly Hill Police Department, meanwhile encourages pursued celebs to pull over and dial 911. The department will send someone or the celebrity can temporarily enter a safety zone at the department.
“We don’t want people getting into fights or high speed chases.”
Prosecutors seek slam dunk
Violations by the paparazzi may occur anywhere in Los Angeles. The roundtable discussion brought all of the folks into one room to brainstorm over the issues, says Matthew Schonbrun, deputy city attorney, Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
“It’s an issue everyone is concerned over. You think about the Princess Diana tragedy. It was horrible and tragic and could have been prevented. In a room full with a lot of big shots it all comes down to deterring behavior,” says Schonbrun.
Jeanine Percival Wright is a civil litigator in the Entertainment and Media group at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P. where she represents well-known celebrities and other talent in a wide variety of entertainment-industry disputes.
“They (the prosecutors) are looking for a good slam dunk case to set a good precedent,” she says.
Wright wanted to know what her clients and their private security could gather as evidence, such as videotape, to help their cases the most and also to learn her clients’ rights. She has clients who are frustrated by the paparazzi’s reckless driving. Wright wanted to ask prosecutors if the new law will be enforced and since there are heightened penalties when children are involved, would the prosecution seek the higher penalties for an expectant mother.
The city attorney’s office responds to public safety. “I take it seriously,” says Schonbron. “It’s going to require one or two successful prosecutions before it starts to have a deterrent effect. Law is written by lawyers and legislators but proving it to a jury I have to have enough evidence to pass their scrutiny. Once a violator is charged with a crime—if the goal is to prevent this type of crime then a judge and jury will help them avoid it.”
Deputy District Attorney William Hodgman, who declined comment, assured those present that the county will get a case and evaluate it, but prosecutors want something that is going to be rock solid, says Sgt. Jakl from the meeting.
Wright says it’s frustrating. She says that she believes many of the new paparazzi are not citizens, use fake names, false identification, and are hired as independent contractors. Many are known to be territorial, with a good number coming from Brazil and spending their free time practicing mixed martial arts. They are big, scary guys she says, who follow her clients incessantly, learning every intimate detail about their schedules, families, and friends—even their children’s pre-schools and nanny’s addresses.
She says the meeting was fantastic. “It was a historic representation of all the different law enforcement agencies. The City of Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, they don’t usually get to talk to each other.”
Andrew Wallet, co-conservator of Britney Spears’ estate, says he was very surprised at the gathering; Law enforcement recognizes there is a problem and it’s difficult to prosecute and convict.
Of his own experience with paparazzi he says, “We know who they are. We know who they work for. They are endangering the public and people we care about.
“They are thugs with cameras. We’ve seen them driving up on the sidewalk and almost hitting pedestrians or almost hitting other cars. We’ve seen them trespass, open doors and gates, and they hide under being the press. They are not the press.”
It is important that law enforcement is focused to do something, he says. There will be a case. There will be a prosecution and that will stop them.
“It’s unacceptable criminal behavior. No matter the celebrity, no one should be subject to that. Anyone in the public around doing these things they are doing—it’s a public concern.”
It’s not just weaving in and out of traffic, jumping onto curbs, or chasing celebrities at high rates of speed. Martell, owner of Martell Investigations, who works closely with Black Box Security, the agency that protects Spears, says Black Box captured video last year of a paparazzo using his right foot to steer his vehicle while he held a camera with both hands to photograph a celebrity.