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Mace & Crown | March 23, 2017

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The Question of Filming the Police

The Question of Filming the Police

[Photo credit: Seth Perlman/AP]

Audra Reigle
Assistant Technology Editor

To film or not to film? That is the question citizens and lawmakers alike find themselves asking when it comes to matters surrounding law enforcement.

In Sept. 2015, Phillip Turner was arrested for failing to identify himself to the Fort Worth Police Department in Texas while filming them, according to ArsTechnica. He was released without charges, but he sued on claims that his First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights were violated. Judge Jacques Wiener ruled in February that the public does have a right to film the police.

The right to film police is not applicable everywhere. When the incident occurred, the Supreme Court hadn’t determined whether the First Amendment rights extended to filming the police. Some district courts have concluded that they do, despite orders from the Supreme Court to not do so.

Turner’s case isn’t the only one involving civilians being arrested for filming the police. William Lund, a freelance reporter for a Rockford, IL news website, went to investigate police activity he heard about on a police scanner, according to Courthouse News. Upon arrival, Lund started to film the police with his phone and he complied with police when he was asked to leave or be arrested. However, he was still arrested “when he took a minute to say goodbye to some of the officers at the scene.” Lund was also ticketed for operating his motorized bicycle without a license. The charges were dropped nine months later, but “Lund seeks punitive damages for claims of false arrest, unreasonable search and seizure, First Amendment retaliation, and conspiracy.”

In 2011, Alton Robinson was recording a New Black Panther Party march where Norfolk police officers that were observing were caught in the video, according to the Virginian-Pilot. The officers told Robinson that he wasn’t allowed to record them, and when he protested, he was arrested. A judge dismissed the charges on Robinson, who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Locally, officers are told that they will be recorded. Unless a person who is recording video is interfering with police work, “officers are told not to interfere with people videotaping them.”

A police department in Wilmington, NC has announced that they believe “taking photographs and videos of people that are in plain sight, including the police, is your legal right,” according to ArsTechnica. The statement comes after Jesse Bright, an Uber driver and lawyer, was stopped by police officers after coming from a “‘known drug house’ that was under surveillance.” Bright filmed the incident, but an officer told him “that a ‘new law’ forbids citizens from filming encounters with police.” When asked to cite the “new law,” officers were unable to do so because it didn’t exist.

In 2015, a Hartford, CN police officer was retrained as a result of his actions when addressing someone who was filming him, according to the Hartford Courant. The South Windsor Police Department has been spending time telling officers that they will be filmed while on the job.

“You can film police on duty as long as you’re not interfering with their activities,” Mark Graber, professor of constitutional law at the University of Maryland, told NPR. However, while it is legal, it is best to listen to law enforcement. If you are asked to stop, it is best to comply rather than argue.