Behind-the-Camera of Photojournalist Nic Coury in Monterey County, California.

February 21, 2010

From the Archive: I was Subpoenaed!

The photo in question... photo by Nic Coury/Mustang Daily

I've told the following quite a bit over the years as an interesting story from my photojournalism career starting in college, but figured I'd illustrate it and get it down in writing.

This is the story that I tell when people ask me how I got started in photography.

~ ~ ~

I went to college at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo (SLO). I was studying print journalism and eventually got my degree in it.

Winter quarter of 2005 was the first of two quarters I took the required JOUR 352 where we were required to write 13 stories for the college newspaper, the Mustang Daily. It was a 5-day daily written, produced and printed all by the students and a neat place to learn journalism.

For whatever reason, SLO was a major player in the Mardi Gras celebrations over the years, but not just on the college party level either. There used to be a huge parade downtown and everything and people came from all over to party in town.

In 2004, that all changed. The city decided they were not interested in having college kids from other schools come into town that week and wreck havoc on their city, so they said no party, which does not go over too well with hundreds of 18-22 year olds. The small SLO PD encountered riots and protests all along frat row just below campus. Cars were set on fire and students got very hurt. It came down to a small police force that had lacked planning and management that resulted in numerous lawsuits against the city.

In 2005, the city planned, but maybe a bit too well. They called in help from all over the state, including numerous sheriff's deputies on horseback, PD and security companies and swat and tactical teams from Los Angeles and San Diego equipped in full riot gear with non-lethal projectiles of rubber bullets and beanbag guns that left heavy bruising.

Police, swat units and tactical teams came into SLO from all over the state, including an LAPD Swat Team. All were armed with non-lethal weapons of bean bag guns, rubber bullets and pepper spray and zip-tie handcuffs. Photo by Nic Coury/Mustang Daily

It was an absurd amount of force that marched up and down California Avenue where all the frats and typical party scene was. They marched in unison for many hours, only breaking to stop kids who lived in houses and apartments on or near California to question why they were walking around. The police force broke up large gatherings with tear gas and bullhorns, not allowing enough students to gather for a riot.

Even the press, both us at the college paper, the SLO Tribune, local news stations and larger papers that came to town to cover the riots were not allowed to walk around. It was pretty much Martial Law.

Prior to Fat Tuesday, all the reporters and photogs from the Mustang Daily were briefed prior by the SLO public information officer and our advisors in the journalism department, so we had some idea something could go down and what to expect and look for on the streets.

I was a reporter then and not really interested in being a news photographer, but at the time, digital cameras were coming into the mainstream, so I had one: a very neat Nikon Coolpix 5700. So as I reported on the street, I took my camera and told the photo editor Matt Wector that I would snap a few photos.

Sometimes towards the end of the night, the police had divided up a large group of students who had gathered in attempt to riot for their right to party (like they did every single weekend the rest of the year). Smaller groups of cops penned off students on street corners and parks and would not let anyone move around.


A cop checks the ID of a college student who lived on that street. Photo by Nic Coury/Mustang Daily

I was standing in the street with one such group when a student near me (the first photo on this page) chucks a beer bottle at one of the cops and is very promptly grabbed and cuffed. (I had a frame of before, a very blurry frame during the throw and the shot of the kid being cuffed).

Sometime around midnight, I wandered back to the newsroom as we were filing super late for the next day's paper and ran into Wector, who was mad that none of the assigned photogs had gotten anything worth running due to where they were penned off. I told him I thought I might have a few good frames. He takes my memory card and we're looking at the photos on the computer and he says sometime to the effect of "I can't believe it. This stuff is great!" Along with my story on the front page, I also got the only four photos on the front page, including the kid who threw the bottle being handcuffed.

Skip ahead to winter quarter finals week in mid-March. As I walked into a final, I got a text from Wector saying he needed to see me ASAP. Being that he was a pretty mellow guy, I was a bit worried, so I took my final and hurried back to the newsroom.

I get sat down by the paper's advisor George Ramos (he won 3 Pulitzer's with the LA Times) and we were joined by Wector, the news editor, the managing editor and the editor-in-chief. Turns out the kid who threw the bottle sued the city of SLO for unlawful arrest (he threw a glass beer bottle at a police officer...).

Being a college kid, he cannot afford a lawyer, so the court appoints him one who then subpoenaed me, Wector and all the editors for the photo, claiming I was a witness to prove the kid's alleged innocence. He also requested the other photos I took that night that were not published for his evidence. Having just taken media law the previous quarter, he was a bit misinformed how that all works...

As I was the only one who was at the scene, I was the only one asked to appear in court as a witness. I was told by my advisor to claim ignorance and say that I can't remember what all happened, because it was a busy scene and I only got that one photo.

The trial was supposed to happen over the summer and as I had moved back home, they were going to cover my food and lodging for the two days witnesses were needed. Turns out, the kid settled out of court before the actual trial, pleading guilty to inciting an officer.

There's my story. I was subpoenaed.

The photo editor liked my work from that, that he let me continue shooting all the stories I would write for the Daily.

~ nic

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