Crime Doesn’t Pay: Don Dickson Learns a Valuable Lesson

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by Bill Hedrick

Everybody was doing it and he had no idea it was illegal. But, as it turned out, ignorance of the law was no defense for Don Dickson after being charged with “criminal trespassing” on railroad property back in 2006. The memories of that day are still vivid in his mind and the lesson learned could save you from a similar fate. Like countless other photographers, Don had always admired competition images that were taken on old railroad bridges or abandoned railroad tracks. Since his early years in photography, Don had routinely offered his high school seniors the opportunity to be photographed at the historic train station in Plainview, Texas. Never in a million years did he ever imagine the trouble it would one day cause.

On September 7, 2006, Don took a high school senior and his mother out to the old vacant railroad station for some sunset portraits on the tracks. “We got some great images. But just about the time we were finished, a white pickup pulled up and a man started yelling that we needed to leave. He really chewed the mother out and told us he was going to turn us in for trespassing,” he recalls. Don quickly apologized and the three of them left. The man never asked their names.
The next day, the “railroad police” came to Don’s studio, flashed a badge, and informed him that he had committed a “Class B misdemeanor.” It was called “criminal trespassing,” an offense punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $10,000 fine. Don recalls that he almost fell on the floor and said, “You have to be kidding!” It was no joke. The railroad official demanded to know both the names of the senior and his mother and began writing them a citation as well.

In the process of writing Don’s citation, he gave him the option of receiving the ticket (which is a Class C misdemeanor) or being arrested and booked into the county jail. In addition, had Don refused to give the “railroad cop” his social security number, he would have had to pay $500 to $2,000 to post bail. “Keep in mind that this was all taking place in my studio lobby in front of customers who were witnessing the whole thing,” says Don.

So, how did the “railroad cop” track down this vicious criminal when they didn’t get his name at the scene of the crime? As it turns out, a railroad employee wrote down Don’s license plate number and called the railroad police who drove 50 miles from Lubbock to issue the citation. When he walked into the studio, there were several displays of similar portraits taken on the tracks. It was all the evidence needed to convict Don Dickson of this dastardly deed.

It was a learning experience, to say the least. Don learned, first of all, that it is a Class B Criminal Trespass to photograph on the railroad track. It really doesn’t matter if it is an abandoned track or one that is in use. Railroad tracks are private property. Secondly, railroad officials don’t give “warning” tickets and have a “zero policy” for this offense. If you are caught, you are “busted.” Lastly, not only are you liable… so are your clients.

For this first-time offense, Don Dickson was put on 6 months “deferred adjudication” which meant that, if he had been caught trespassing again during that time period, his fine could have been doubled and he could have served time in a state jail. That’s a mighty expensive photo session.

As with anything, there are liability issues as well as safety issues when people venture onto private property. In fact, the BNSF Railway posted a letter in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal several years after Dickson’s ordeal expressing its concern about photographers taking pictures on railroad tracks. “What may seem like a harmless photo opportunity to the trespassers is among the more dangerous activities any human being can engage in with a railroad,” the letter states. “The sad fact is that more pedestrians are fatally injured trespassing on the nation’s railroad tracks each year than motorists in grade crossing collisions.” The letter references Texas Penal Code, Section: 28.07 which spells out the same penalties that Don Dickson received way back in 2006.

Obviously, Don Dickson stopped offering railroad images as a choice for his high school seniors and hopes others will learn from his experience that you should never trespass onto railroad property. As he points out, “I know it doesn’t make sense, but it is the law and you could serve considerable jail time and/or pay a hefty fine for just getting one great shot.”

Don Dickson is the Director of the Texas School of Professional Photography. After serving as President of Texas PPA in 1990, he went on to serve as President of SWPPA and, later, the Professional Photographers of America. Under his leadership, the Texas School of Professional Photography has grown into the largest and most prestigious school of its kind in the nation with some 36 classes for the week-long event. Don recently sold his studio after more than four decades in business in Plainview, Texas. Learn more about Texas School at www.TexasSchool.org.