As the reigning teen prince of pop music, Justin Bieber is used to being chased by "Beliebers" and paparazzi alike. However, one of those chases got a little out of hand earlier this month. Tailed by six paparazzi cars, Bieber was caught driving his silver Fisker over 80 mph in a 65 mph zone and slapped with a speeding ticket. However, Paul Raef, the photographer who was reported to be chasing him most aggressively and initially fled the scene, could face a steeper sentence.
For the first time since its 2010 ratification, AB 2479 is being invoked by the Los Angeles City Attorney in charges against paparazzo. Raef could be sentenced to a possible $3,500 fine and a year in jail under the law. However some civil rights activists worry about the use of the law itself, which they say threatens the First Amendment's freedom of the press.
"The issue that has been so nettlesome is how to regulate activity that involves recording in the public space," says Jody Armour, a USC law professor.
AB 2479 makes reckless driving a misdemeanor punishable by jail time or a $2,500 fine if the perpetrator is doing so with the "intent to capture any type of visual image, sound recording, or other physical impression of another person for a commercial purpose."
The law has been known as the "anti-paparazzi law," as it was crafted to protect celebrities who are often hounded by photographers—it was a celebrity-turned-governor who signed it into law. "No one knows the dangers of being chased by the paparazzi more than Governor Schwarzenegger," says Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA.
Critics say that reckless driving and trespassing are already a crime, so its troublesome that celebrity photographers are being singled out for a stronger punishment.
"The way they are gathering information is so annoying, we are going to criminalize it," says Armour, a critic of the law. He worries that because paparazzi are easy to hate, the law was passed without considering its full ramifications.
However proponents of the law say the special designation for those taking pictures for commercial use is important, as the payoff for getting a tabloid-worthy shot of any A-list celebrity is often more than the typical fines themselves, so the threat of jail time is necessary.
"It wasn't curtailing the problem before," says Sean Burke, of the Paparazzi Reform Initiative, a nonprofit organization that helped craft and promote the law.
The ACLU also has criticized the law. "Having a law that creates special punishments for a constitutionally protected freedom is dangerous," explains Peter Bibring, an ACLU legal counsel. He acknowledges the argument that normal fines are not enough in some situations, but says that the law could be structured in a way that extended punishment to all reckless drivers with financial motives, rather than just photographers.
"What does it matter if you are driving reckless because you are going to make money for taking a picture or you're going to make money for getting a delivery in time?" he says.
Frank Matejlin, a spokesman for the L.A. City Attorney's office, says the law acts as a deterrent to protect the public. Burke agreed. "What happened after the law came into effect was that calmed down dramatically," citing Beverly Hills Police Department statistics showing that paparazzi complaints dropped from 248 in 2008 to 76 in 2011 (he also credits other measures authorities took alongside the law in bringing down complaints).
Another critique is that the language is too vague and could be construed to go after any journalist, not just the paparazzi.
"Whose news gathering is going to be too troublesome in the future?" asks Armour. "My concern is that in may have a chilling effect on legitimate media outlets."
Patrick Alach of Paparazzi Reform Initiative, a lawyer who helped write the law, resists such accusations. He points out that since AB 4279 is a criminal law, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt while showing that there both was dangerous driving and that the driving was intended to capture a photograph for commercial use. "This makes broadsweeping application of this in inappropriate situations difficult to bring successfully."
Winkler agrees that the statute is vague, but because the Bieber chase was "so outrageous," he says, "I don't think there will be a problem in this case."
"The concern is this will be used in circumstances not so obvious," says Bibring. Armour agrees, adding that it's one thing to discuss the law in hypotheticals, but only in concrete cases will its full ramifications be understood.
But according to one of its co-sponsors, former California Assembly Woman Karen Bass, now a U.S. representative, the law is working just as it should. In an E-mailed statement, she said, "In this specific case, I am glad Justin Beiber [sic] is safe and I hope that this incident serves as a lesson to paparazzi that they cannot cause severe risk to the public and the individual they are pursuing."
Corrected on 7/30/2012: A previous version of this article misspelled Patrick Alach’s name.