Yesterday I was out with a friend taking photos of the Hess oil refinery in Port Reading, NJ. We're working on a sketch comedy pilot, and one of the scripts calls for an oil refinery as a background. We found a bridge near the refinery that had a fantastic, unobstructed view and proceeded to snap a few quick photos. We were standing on a public sidewalk on the bridge, we weren't obstructing traffic, and we parked our car legally at a public park right next to the bridge. As I turned around to leave, a police cruiser from the Woodbridge Township Police Department pulled up to where we stood (Port Reading is part of Woodbridge Township). The officer asked us what we were doing, and we explained that we were taking photos of the refinery for a sketch comedy project. Immediately, he told us that we weren't allowed to take photos of the refinery, and that we had to delete all the photos in the camera.
My mind quickly snapped back to all the posts I've read on Boing Boing about police doing this very thing. So I asked the officer why I had to delete the photos. He responded that there were town ordinances that were mandated by the state and the Department of Homeland Security. I then asked for the specific ordinance or law, saying that I had read a lot of stories about police and photography in public places. He failed to provide me with anything specific, citing Homeland Security "stuff". He then asked us for our driver's licenses (which I believe he's allowed to do) and our Social Security numbers. I told him I was uncomfortable with that and asked him why he needed my SS number, to which he never gave me a clear answer. He just kept saying that we weren't being reported for anything, they wouldn't keep our info on file, and that he needed the SS numbers to check in. I reluctantly gave it to him, and he got back in his car. We stood on the bridge for about ten minutes before he got out and told us nothing was wrong, just that we shouldn't take any more photos like that. I asked if I still had to delete my photos, and he said no. I should point out that the officer was nice enough about the whole thing, and our exchange was perfectly civil. That doesn't forgive any possible harassment, of course.
We didn't get any kind of report or explanation about how our information was used. We certainly never learned what ordinance or law we were violating. I have been searching the Woodbridge Township ordinances (found here), but haven't found anything even close to what he was describing. I'm going to call the township as well as the state Attorney General's Office. I'd actually feel a little better if there was such a law, even though I would disagree with it. I'm much more worried by the fact that police across the country are stopping people on the street for breaking laws that don't exist.
I'm still not sure if I did or did not break any laws. I've done a lot of research on my own, but I'd like to open it up to the community. Has anyone else had a similar experience in New Jersey? Is anyone familiar with the state and federal laws regarding photography of public places? Is it standard procedure to ask for someone's Social Security number? Does this law, or any like it, exist?
By the way, I haven't posted the photos yet. I'm still not sure if I'm allowed to, because I never got a clear answer from the officer. It's funny how something simple can get so complicated.