May 17th, 2010

LA photographer Jonas Lara had his day in court today. The criminal charges against him were dropped and the judge issued a court order for the release of his camera equipment, which had been held as evidence since his arrest on February 2, 2010.

Lara was fighting a charge of aiding and abetting two graffiti artists whose work he was documenting when the three men were arrested in South Central Los Angeles. (More on the case here.)

The photographer established a legal fund and appealed for donations after he was unable to convince his public defender that his rights as a photographer to document the work of the artists had some bearing on the case against him.

In just over a week, enough friends and colleagues in the photo community responded with donations for Lara to pay the retainer for The Kavinoky Law Firm, a group of California-based criminal lawyers.

Joel Koury, the attorney who represented Lara in court this morning, says his strategy was to “go in with guns blazing,” which caught the prosecutor off guard, because key evidence—pictures that the police claimed they took showing Lara’s hands with paint on them—had apparently gone missing. Koury says he doubts that the police ever took them.

The prosecutor, judge and Koury then discussed a formal diversion plea for the vandalism charge, which would have required Lara to perform community service over the course of 18 months before the case would be dismissed. Koury told the judge he would talk to Lara about agreeing to a six-month probationary period, but instead Lara and the attorney decided to stay on the offensive, refused the deal and pushed for a trial.

Koury also showed the prosecutor character letters colleagues had written on Lara’s behalf, proof that Lara was in art school and had published books of his work, and proof that he had a photography business registered with the IRS.

“We’re not talking about some gang member, we’re talking about an actual photojournalist,” Koury says he told the prosecutor. “Just because a photojournalist takes a picture of someone committing a crime does not turn the photographer into a criminal,” he adds.

The prosecutor then offered to knock the charge down to trespassing and agree to an informal diversion plea, but again Lara and his attorney refused.

Koury says he asked the prosecutor what was really important to her in the case, and she responded that the property owner had paid $200 to have the graffiti murals cleaned off the wall of the building.

Koury says that though he believes he would have beat the trespass charge in a jury trial, he offered at Lara’s behest to agree to have Lara pay the $200 restitution fee to the property owner in exchange for the charge being reduced to a disturbing the peace infraction.

Though Koury says he feels “a little bad” that Lara paid the restitution, the deal guaranteed Lara could walk away from court today with no criminal record rather than having to go through a jury trial.

The LAPD has still refused to return Lara’s camera equipment despite the judge’s order. When Lara went to the police station to retrieve his equipment the police were “really pissed off,” he says, and attempted to question him further about the February 2 incident.

Koury says it is just a case of “cops being a little bit stubborn.” He expects Lara should have his gear back in a day or so.

Lara first met with and hired The Kavinoky Law Firm yesterday afternoon. The firm, which typically commands retainers in the five figures, agreed to represent Lara for far less “because we were pissed off,” Koury says. “It was ridiculous that [a photojournalist] would find himself in that position.”




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