Prosecutors and police said Thursday they had opened a broad investigation of the city’s paparazzi, looking at whether some photographers engage in criminal conspiracy to land highly prized photos of stars in distress.
The issue of how far paparazzi are willing to go to capture celebrity snaps for tabloids and glossy magazines was illustrated last week by a car accident between teenage actress Lindsay Lohan and a photographer who had been following her.
But authorities said they launched their larger paparazzi probe months earlier, responding to a growing number of cases in which they say photographers have banded together to provoke celebrities, and then capture their reactions on film.
“In certain, specific incidents, the paparazzi have crossed the line into criminal behavior,” said William Hodgman, who is spearheading the investigation as head of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s target crimes division.
One increasingly common tactic is for teams of paparazzi to chase celebrities’ vehicles through city streets, to surround their cars in traffic and in some cases even try to run them off the road or cause collisions, police said.
“Somebody’s going to get hurt or killed because of this activity,” Hodgman told Reuters. “And we are aware of numerous instances where the children of celebrities have been jeopardized by the conduct of the paparazzi.”
Many of the traffic infractions and other petty crimes photographers commit in pursuit of the celebrity “money shot” carry relatively little legal risk by themselves.
But police Lt. Paul Vernon said authorities are looking at the extent to which paparazzi are collaborating, which could change the nature of how cases against them are prosecuted.
“What some people fail to recognize is that if you conspire to commit a misdemeanor, that is, if you are planning those kinds of things out in advance, two or more people, that conspiring to commit a misdemeanor is a felony, and it’s a much more serious crime,” Vernon said.
He added that investigators are scrutinizing individual photographers as well as the agencies that pay them for their work.
In the Lohan incident June 1, the 18-year-old actress had called police on her cell phone to complain that she was being chased by paparazzi.
A short time later, police said, a photographer working for one of the city’s leading picture agencies slammed his minivan into Lohan’s Mercedes when she made a U-turn to evade him.
Lohan and a passenger suffered cuts and minor injuries. The photographer, Galo Cesar Ramirez, was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon.
Several other photographers arrived at the scene moments after the accident. Hodgman said no formal charges in the crash have been filed.
Late last year, actress Cameron Diaz and singer Justin Timberlake filed suit against a pair of celebrity photographers, saying the two tried to provoke a fight in order to take better pictures. The photographers sued the couple, saying they had been attacked.