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Trespass charge stemming from local photographer's power plant shoot dismissed

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Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Gary Sprague of Upper Burrell displays his photos of the Conemaugh Generating Station, an Indiana County power plant near New Florence, Westmoreland County. Sprague said he encountered a plant security guard on Sept. 14, 2013, who allegedly accused him of trespassing and violating a prohibition on photography of power plants. Sprague was later cited for trespassing; he believes the citation is in retalition for refusing to delete his photos. The trespassing charge was dismissed on Dec. 2, 2013, during a hearing before Blairsville District Judge Jennifer Rega.

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Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, 12:42 p.m.

A trespassing charge has been dismissed against an Upper Burrell man who was taking photos at an Indiana County power plant when the owner failed to send witnesses to a preliminary hearing on Monday.

Blairsville District Judge Jennifer Rega dismissed a charge of defiant trespass filed by state police against Gary Sprague, 52.

The case may not be over entirely, as Sprague said he is considering legal action.

The charge, which carried a fine of more than $400, stemmed from a Sept. 14 incident outside the Conemaugh plant in West Wheatfield Township.

According to Sprague, an amateur photographer and vice president of the New Kensington Camera Club, he and a fellow club member stopped at the coal-fired plant.

He said the pair snapped photos of the plant, but they did not stray from the public right of way.

According to Sprague, a plant security guard eventually approached them and told them they were trespassing. Sprague said they left when told to do so, but added he did not surrender his camera nor delete his photos when told to do so by the guard.

Sprague's companion was not charged.

Trooper Richard Englert, who filed the trespass charge after being contacted by power plant staff, said he'd seen security footage from the plant that shows Sprague standing beside a “no trespassing” sign.

David Gaier, a spokesman for power plant operator NRG Energy Inc., said the company has decided not to prosecute.

“Our only concern is ensuring the safety and security of our employees and the security of our plants,” he said, declining further comment.

Though the charge has been dismissed, Sprague said the case isn't over for him and a lawsuit against NRG Energy of New Jersey may be forthcoming.

“It's about photographers' rights and awareness,” he said.

This is not a rare legal case, according to state and national media law experts.

“Unfortunately, we see this happening far too often around the country,” said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

There are more legal challenges to photographers' rights because of post-9/11 security issues, the proliferation of cell phone cameras and Internet distribution, and a heightened sense of fear and suspicion, according to Osterreicher.

“There are far too many people who think they can infringe on a photographer's First Amendment right to take photographs from a public place,” he said.

According to Melissa Melewsky, media law council for Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, it is cut and dried that a photographer can take pictures from a public place like a street.

“Photography from public places is a problem that comes up on a pretty regular basis,” she said. “Sometimes, it's because the public property owner wants to discourage pictures being taken. Sometimes, it's a misunderstanding of the land owner and sometimes, the police don't want you to record what they are doing.”

Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100 , ext. 2910, or Valley News Dispatch reporter Mary Ann Thomas contributed to this report.

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