Photographer Detained by Secret Service for Taking Pics Shares Story

Below is a guest post by Jeff Costlow, a Washington DC-based photographer who yesterday was questioned and photographed by the secret service for 15min outside the White House. His “offense”? According to one man wearing a badge he was “acting very strange…”. He was taking pictures.

After watching how well Jeff handled himself it may be hard to believe that he’s a photographer first and an activist second. But as my bud Alex Nowrasteh commented about his interaction with this turf-based gang, “Really brilliant. He was hilarious, smart, and totally disarming. Good lessons.”

Jeff has experience (similar run-ins) and is a good communicator who can handle himself well on the fly. He stood firm in many areas – not removing his sunglasses, not letting them search his person or property, constantly demanding his I.D. (which some would argue should never have been shared and which Jeff touches on below) and proactively calling his friend and fellow activist Jerome Vorus. And most-important – he recorded the incident.

How would you have handled such an experience? The more you can hash out the better you’ll do – and it could make a big difference. We are talking about people (and those who grant them authority) who believe they can do things that would be immoral and unjust for your or I to do.

On a more personal note, I first crossed-paths with Jeff a few years ago when I was with the then-principled Bureaucrash. I had stumbled across videos he’d shot in Arlington and DC and hit him up to inform him of Bureaucrash and our activities in town. At that time Jeff seemed more into filming the regular going-ons and sites of urban life than activism but like Carlos Miller, it seems he’s found these two areas overlapping more and more, thanks to the growing police state.

Thanks for standing up for your rights and for sharing this with others Jeff!

For More:
Secret Service Agents Detain Man for Taking Photos in Front of White House
by Carlos Miller
Cops Trick Photographer into Stopping for Them
by George Donnelly

February 18th 2011 – *2:30pm EST
Washington,DC – The White House, North Lawn Pedestrian Plaza
Parties Involved:
Me, Jeff Costlow, 25 of Arlington,Virginia &
Officers & a Sergeant from the U.S. Secret Service’s Uniformed Division

Yesterday I thought I’d take advantage of warm weather in the nations capital and get some much needed exercise while practicing my photography. Living across the Potomac River in Arlington County and being a photographer, taking a trip downtown to the many national monuments and national icons is a pretty common thing to do.

I took the Metro to Metro Center Station, which is pretty dead-center on a map of Washington and planned to walk through the general area of the White House first before walking south on 17th Street to the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial.

I never made it that far.

I took some pics of people around town, an ambulance racing by, someone sleeping and a shot looking down Pennsylvania Avenue at the Capitol building before I walked to the north side of the White House to the common walkway area between the Executive grounds and Lafayette Park.

Many people were out and about – tourists, workers on their lunch breaks and police officers in front of the White House on foot, bicycle and parked cruisers assigned to the Uniformed Division of the United States Secret Service.

I was one of many photographers taking pics in that area. Children were out and about and I remember seeing parents stage their two kids in front of a police cruiser for a picture. Tourists too were getting pictures outside the White House and police officers from the Secret Service were standing by watching the area.

Most of the officers stood together talking about whatever, the news of the day, the game last night or even weekend plans, the point being that they stand around bunched together talking and chatting amongst each other and really weren’t too observant of much of anything. They were not aware that many people were collecting pictures of them. It took them a while to notice me there until I made the mistake of making eye contact with one officer and he took note that I had a camera around my neck.

I was briefly asked to stop taking pictures of any of the officers or vehicles in front of the White House. When I questioned why I was being asked to do so an officer requested my I.D. After a quick minute conversation it was determined that they had no reason to stop or identify me and that in all legality that I was indeed free to go which meant me walking to the other end of the pedestrian walkway. For just a couple minutes it seemed as if that was it and everything was over.

What happened next is a shame. It’s a crime, it’s totally ridiculous and it’s a complete violation and disregard for the civil rights and liberties of an american citizen. My photographs leading up to and during the incident can be found online at

The officers of the Uniformed Division along with their supervising sergeant took both offense and alert to my gathering photographs of them. They singled me out and over-stepped their authoritative boundaries and proceeded to harass me for the next 14 minutes.

An officer told me I was being stopped and that I shouldn’t be taking pictures. I asked to see his supervisor and quickly a sergeant appeared and advised me I was being detained and questioned for “taking pictures in a suspicious manner”.

I found that extremely odd and I questioned the supervisor’s flawed logic. He claimed I needed to surrender my I.D. and answer some questions for the officers. I asked if there was someone above his rank that either I could speak to or who could speak to him and advise him of his legal basis to stop someone on an american street. I was told that no supervisor was available.

I detailed that I was being wrongfully stopped and detained and that the Supreme Court and U.S Constitution supported my statements. Even though I knew that I didn’t need to surrender my I.D. or speak to police (and I believe in those principles) I thought providing my I.D. would play a positive role as I have no criminal record and to my knowledge I have no outstanding warrants for any criminal acts, mainly because as a Law Abiding Citizen I usually do not commit any criminal acts.

I surrendered my I.D. to the officers and despite my record being returned clean, they further violated my civil liberties by continuing to investigate me criminally for a simple civil matter. For the next 10 minutes they refused to return my I.D. [Jeff specifically asked for it just prior to the 7min-, 10min-, and 12min-mark]. or let me leave and instead questioned me as a suspect. By doing so they violated more and more of their laws and the rules or policy of the Homeland Security and Justice Departments.

They held me without charge on a public street and took a photograph of me [secret service: “Since you took a picture of us we’re going to take a picture of you for our records”], at one point even requesting that I remove my sunglasses, which I never did. I thought it was ironic that they wanted to look into my eyes while abusing me yet during the 14 minute ordeal not one of them took off their sunglasses.

I was asked if I had any weapons or explosives on me that could harm or injure them (as they were self-centered individuals looking out for their own personal security and safety while harming the rights of another human). Of course I had nothing on me and I made it clear to them they were not going to find out [Jeff: “If you check me – lawsuit. You’re not going to look in my bag”].

I threatened or spoke of legal action in the event they tried to search me. They asked to search my bag and got a big “NO” from me. All I wanted was for them to return my I.D. and leave me alone.

I tried to tell them I didn’t want to answer any questions but ended up answering a couple with the hope it would speed up the process so that I could finally leave. At times the sergeant told me to stop filming and that I shouldn’t be taking pictures of his men or videotaping what they were doing [secret service: “When we ask you nicely not to take our photograph and you continue to do that . . .”. Jeff: “Unfortunately its not up to you when someone takes your photograph and if you don’t know that then maybe this job is not the right job for you”]. What they were doing was harassing me.

While stopped for photography I often record of my encounters with the police.

Look into my videos in Arlington County where two times (here & here) I’m stopped for video recording/taking pictures. While officers surround me and claim what I’m doing is wrong I somehow manage to keep doing it, proving it isn’t wrong or against the law.

If photography were a crime then doing it in front of police officers would also be a crime. It would be like being stopped for selling drugs and while officers ask me questions I make a drug transaction in front of them or while being stopped at a bank under suspicion of robbing it I’m then allowed to actually rob it without the police ever making a physical move at me to prevent any crimnal actions I’m doing.

I decided a couple minutes later to make a move – to try to pull anything from my sleeve to change the ballgame or to shake up the attitude of the officers. I said outloud that “I’m calling a real police officer” when really I just called a friend and fellow activist Jerome Vorus.

It’s important during these incidents or scenarios to gain contact with someone if possible. Sometimes it’s nice to get a hold of your lawyer but if you tell cops that they may try to inconvenience you further.

If they’ve already shown that they will detain you without charge and violate your civil rights then most-likely they would be inclined to continue that process as much as they can – not as much as they need to but as much as they want. Need implies them acting by policy or some guideline. Want implies they are doing something in their own best interest and making a decision based on their opinion or belief about what should be done about you and not what the law says.

As can be seen in the video, when I got Jerome on the line the mood of the officers changed instantly. I noted that I’d been held for 13 minutes, which caused an officer to respond, “You could have gone at anytime”, however that wasn’t true. I pointed out to him that I couldnt go without my I.D. and he said he would like to give back my I.D. but he asked to speak to the person I was on the phone with.

I declined his requests and he eventually returned my I.D. Before I make my move to leave the officers explained that agents would be coming to my house to talk to me [Jeff’s response: “Tell them to disregard that because I will not be answering them” and that “There won’t be an answer at the door for them”].

I remained on the phone with Jerome and quickly found the nearest metro station to return home. I was happy to finally be free from those officers.

My plan of action is to call Arlington Police and have them (as my local police force) advise the Secret Service to not bother me and that coming to my home to talk to me would be a form of harassment. I’m looking into filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out the names of all agents involved in the investigation. Then the next move will be to file restraining orders against those agents in hopes that that will prevent them from bothering or harassing me further. It wouldn’t be the first time agents from the Secret Service came to my door but that’s a story for another day.


Pete Eyre

Pete Eyre is co-founder of As an advocate of peaceful, consensual interactions, he seeks to inject a message of complete liberty and self-government into the conversation of police accountability. Eyre went to undergrad and grad school for law enforcement, then spent time in DC as an intern at the Cato Institute, a Koch Fellow at the Drug Policy Alliance, Directer of Campus Outreach at the Institute for Humane Studies, Crasher-in-Chief at Bureaucrash, and as a contractor for the Future of Freedom Foundation. In 2009 he left the belly of the beast and hit the road with Motorhome Diaries and later co-founded Liberty On Tour. He spent time in New Hampshire home, and was involved with Free Keene, the Free State Project and The Daily Decrypt.