Jesse Fruhwirth was recording the Tesoro Refinery in Salt Lake City when he was stopped and questioned by what appeared to be an on-duty police officer. Salt Lake City police officer Yvette Zayas stopped Fruhwirth while driving a marked patrol vehicle with the sirens on, in full uniform, telling Fruhwirth he was not free to leave.

However, Zayas was being paid by the Tesoro Refinery – where she worked while off-duty from the police department – and the only suspicious activity she detained Fruhwirth for was recording from public property – which is not a crime.

Now, Fruhwirth is suing Zayas for violating his Constitutional right to free speech and to be free from warrantless searches and seizures.

Fruhwirth’s recording shows Zayas repeatedly asserting that she stopped him for taking pictures of “critical infrastructure,” and that she needed to question him because she didn’t know what his intentions were.

Fruhwirth’s intentions, however, were fairly obvious, as he was recording the refinery while they noticeably burned off large amounts of toxic material into the air – a criminal action that can cause emphysema, but has gone unpunished as Tesoro simultaneously employs local police, and likely controls local politicians.

According to the lawsuit:

17. On or about December 20, 2013, during a period of particularly bad air quality in the
Salt Lake valley, Plaintiff looked out of his window and observed a large plume of glowing
flames lighting up the night sky in his neighborhood. The Tesoro refinery located at
approximately 950 North and 400 West in Salt Lake City was conducting what Plaintiff believed
to be a large waste gas flare or burn off.
18. A waste gas flare or burn off is a method used by refinery operators to burn off
excess hydrocarbons in the refinery system. Flares or burn offs result in increased air pollution.
19. Concerned, and intending to publish information about the air quality in the Salt Lake
valley and the possible effects of the refinery flare or burn off, Plaintiff drove to a location
adjacent to the Tesoro refinery. Plaintiff stopped his car on a public street and exited his vehicle.
He took out a video camera, intending to film the flare or burn off so that he could use the video
as part of an online publication addressing air quality issues in the Salt Lake valley.
20. Very shortly after Plaintiff exited his vehicle a Salt Lake City police vehicle arrived
at the scene with its rooftop lights activated. The vehicle stopped very near Plaintiff’s vehicle
and a Salt Lake City Police Officer, who Plaintiff later learned was Defendant Zayas, stepped
21. Defendant Zayas approached Plaintiff and asked him what he was doing and why he
was filming the refinery. She asked Plaintiff for identification and commanded him to “hold
tight,” making it clear that he was not free to leave.
22. Defendant Zayas told Plaintiff that she stopped and detained him because the refinery
is “critical infrastructure and you’re taking pictures of it.” When Plaintiff inquired as to the
legality of filming the refinery Defendant Zayas stated that it was not against the law. However,
Defendant Zayas further explained that it is the policy of Salt Lake City Police officers employed
by Tesoro to stop and question anyone filming or photographing the Tesoro Salt Lake City
23. While detaining Plaintiff, Defendant Zayas asked Plaintiff numerous questions about
why he was recording images of the refinery, what devices he has used to do so, the nature of the
video recorded, etc. When Plaintiff stated that he did not wish to answer her questions,
Defendant Zayas told Plaintiff that he was obligated and required to do so.

Before filing suit, Fruhwirth submitted a complaint to the police department’s internal affairs bureau. Like other recent internal police investigations, it is unclear how seriously the officers in charge took their investigation, as Officer Zayas’ actions were found within policy. While uniformed officers are legally allowed to act as private security guards, officers in such positions can only enforce state laws, and as we all know, Photography Is Not A Crime.

Best of luck to Fruhwirth on his legal action, and shame on anyone that would seek to detain or imprison people for recording crimes against the public.

For news tips on aerial photography and drones, contact Andrew Meyer, PINAC’s staff writer covering UAV photography, the First Amendment, and more. Follow him on twitter @theandrewmeyer.