A warning to the Washington, D.C., photographer: don’t dawdle. If you linger for more than five minutes to take a photograph in a public place, you could be arrested under an obscure D.C. regulation.
To be fair, this law and similar ones pertaining to photographers have been around for decades with little attention or enforcement. But they drew laughs — and serious criticism — last week when a Washington Post blog listed them as one of 160 minor infractions that, according to a Metropolitan Police Department policy manual, can be considered arrestable or citation-worthy offenses.
The misdemeanors uncovered by the blog range from the everyday, such as posting signs or ads on street lamps, to the bizarre, such as failure to check an eel trap. But the list garnered attention because one of the offenses, driving a vehicle that is unregistered or has an expired registration, stirred controversy when the Post reported in October that thousands in the District have been arrested in recent years for expired tags.
Although most professional and amateur photographers were not the intended target of these municipal regulations, which were originally crafted to regulate street-vendor type cameramen who take photos of tourists and sell them for a fee, some worry that there is still potential for abuse.
Helder Gil, a spokesperson for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said that only one or two street photographers are currently licensed and that it has been their policy to exempt journalists, bloggers, professional photographers who take pictures of buildings and scenery and wedding photographers.
Gil said he also is not aware of any enforcement taken against street photographers by his agency in recent memory, but that they are working to revise the entire chapter covering street vending regulations that he expects will be proposed by the end of the year.
Osterreicher said that he had only received a confirmation of receipt for the letter he sent asking for revisions from the D.C. attorney general, but that he hopes that his organization can work with the city to rework the definitions in the regulation.
However, he said, if the city stood by the current version, the NPPA would consider taking legal action to challenge them.
For now, said the Post’s Mike DeBonis, photographers should not worry “so as long as you don’t make a living hustling tourists for snapshots, you can snap away without keeping an eye on your watch.”