Photo by Jay Nolan

Photo by Jay Nolan

A Tampa Tribune photojournalist had his cell phone confiscated – and was detained for 15 minutes – after he photographed the scene of an accident involving a U.S. Customs officer early Monday morning.

Jay Nolan arrived on the scene where a Customs vehicle was hanging over a bridge after it was involved in a three-car accident. Using his cell phone, he snapped a photo of the accident along with Customs Officer David Tipton talking on a phone.

After noticing his photo had been taken, Tipton demanded that Nolan assure him he not publish the photo.

Much to his credit, Nolan refused to give him that assurance.

According to the Tampa Tribune:

“He told me, ‘You don’t understand. We’re not local law enforcement here. We’re the federal government. We’ll take your gear right now,’” Nolan said. “He gave me two choices: either give my assurance or be placed under arrest.”

Tipton then confiscated Nolan’s cell phone and another officer whisked Nolan away.

Because Nolan was not handcuffed, he managed to switch the compact flash in his digital SLR with an empty card in case that ended up confiscated.

About 15 minutes later, another officer returned the cell phone and released Nolan. Two hours later, Gary McClelland, the agency’s port director, apologized to Nolan at the scene.

McClelland tried to justify Tipton’s aggressive and bullying behavior as a natural reaction from the accident.

“You have to understand the gentleman (Tipton) was just in a very serious accident,” McClelland said. “He was very shaken up.”

Let’s see if we can get away with threatening and stealing somebody’s personal property next time we get in a car accident.

Oblivious to First Amendment protections on public photography, McClelland told the Tribune that normally they do not allow people to take their photos because of the “nature of their jobs”, but they make exceptions to the media.

According to officials, the crash occurred when a Mazda Miata struck a PT Cruiser, forcing the Cruiser into the Customs car.

The driver of the Miata was cited for careless driving and the driver of the PT Cruiser was arrested on a warrant.

But considering how hard they tried to cover this up and how blatantly they lied about photography laws, why should we believe the Customs officer was not at fault here?