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You can use your phone to film the police, even if they tell you not to

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This should be obvious to anyone living in a free society but, it’s worth repeating: citizens have the right to record the public actions of the police. And while some police officers don’t like this fact, they have no right to stop you.

The issue came up again this week in riot-torn Ferguson, Missouri where police reportedly told a crowd of protesters to turn off their cameras following a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets. If this account is true, the police are simply wrong: protesters have the right to film the police.

This is the position of  liberal and conservative scholars, and of appeals courts throughout the United States. As scholar and blogger Eugene Volokh explains of a 2011 First Circuit decision:

Just as the right to speak can be unconstitutionally burdened by restrictions on spending money to speak, or associating in order to speak, it can also be unconstitutionally burdened by restrictions on the gathering of information that is needed to credibly speak.

And the decision is also important. It’s just the latest in a line of circuit court cases, but it’s likely to get a lot of publicity, encourage police departments to respect the public’s rights to openly record police officers in public, and encourage lawyers to challenge violations of these rights.

As with other First Amendment rights, the right to record the police is not absolute: it does not give you a right to interfere with legitimate police business. But overall, you can (and perhaps should) use your phone, or other camera device, to record arrests, crowd control or other police activity.

Nor can police order you to delete the content of your phone. And, if they wish to search it, the Supreme Court made clear this year they need a warrant to do so.

Finally, the legal right to record police is obvious, but so too is the reason for doing so: the camera in the pocket of every citizen can act as a check on police abuses and a troubling trend of police militarization. You can find some links on the law of recording police further below.

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Recording Police Officers and Public Officials (Digital Media Law Project, Berkman Center)

Filming the Watchmen: Why the First Amendment Protects Your Right to Film the Police in Public Places (Heritage Foundation)

Your right to record and observe the police (ACLU)

24 Responses to “You can use your phone to film the police, even if they tell you not to”

  1. Imagine if the judgments in civil suits against officers were taken out of their pensions. That’s a nice check on the use of force.

    Also, in CA, the cop must consent to being recorded. I’m sure if you catch police brutality or misconduct on camera, the jury or judge will sympathize with you.

  2. Bukko Boomeranger

    I’m as liberal as they come, so much so that I moved out of the United States during the Cheney administration because I could no longer in good conscience remain in a country that was killing so many people around the world. But in this case, I find myself agreeing with the right-wingers whose prime Reagan-venerating principle is that “government is the enemy.” In the U.S., the police are now more like an occupation force, not a protector of the populace. Only, I think that most right-wingers reflexively SUPPORT government power, as long as it’s wearing a badge and a gun. Wake up and smell the Police SState, people!

  3. Don’t forget most cops are not highly educated people. I remember a story on tv about a guy who sued the policy force because they rejected him because he was “too smart”. In the Air Force, they typically were the lowest scoring people. You could always get a job with the SPs.

    If you want to film the police use something not obvious or not obviously.

  4. Antonio Buehler

    On January 1, 2012 I filmed the police for the first time because two cops were assaulting a woman who had committed no crime, and then they charged me with a fabricated felony charge of spitting in the cops face. I’ve been arrested two more times for filming the police, and indicted for a time I wasn’t even arrested for filming the police in Austin, TX.

    They’ve also arrested several other members of the Peaceful Streets Project for filming the police. They arrest us because they know they can. The prosecutors support them and push forward with the unconstitutional charges. The politicians ignore the crimes of the police. And sadly, too many of the residents support the police knowing full well that they are committing crimes.

    Patrick Oborski, the cop who assaulted me and charged me with a felony crime that I never committed on New Year’s Day 2012 won a state award from Mother’s Against Drunk Driving that year, won the department’s first ever “Hero Award” that year, and then won the national Mother’s Against Drunk Driving award the following year. They slandered me, which led to others libeling me. They put cops outside of my house to intimidate me. They tried to get me indicted on additional crimes I didn’t commit. I’m still facing four outstanding charges from the Austin Police Department two and a half years after they assaulted me and charged me with crimes I didn’t commit for filming police. They are throwing everything to stop my civil suit against them, and they never even reprimanded, much less fired or arrested the criminal cops who broke the laws in assaulting me and the female victim from that night, or in the follow on arrests after that event.

    And I am a half White, half Asian, West Point, Harvard and Stanford educated professional who had never been in trouble with the law. There were also a half dozen witnesses in my case who said that the cops lied, and two videos which proved it. If the cops are willing to conspire to throw me in prison for years, what do you think they’re willing to do to young black and Hispanic men?

  5. Shirley LettingGodtakeover Hand Collins

    I still to this day have a vhs recording of Cahokia, Illinois Police officers Ron Touchette and Tony Flinn in my house disrespecting me and my children after my car that was being driven by my oldest was rear ended by two grown white men. When my children stopped to check the damage the two white men were going to attack my oldest but my other children and some other family and friends stepped in. Nothing has ever been done and they threaten to arrest me for videoing in my home where they walk in uninvited. So believe me when I say none of this is about skin color it is all about ABUSING POWER! I am biracial ( white father/black mother) both silly as hell, father burning in hell waiting on my mother with her gasoline thong on.


  6. Yet another reason why having your photos/videos upload automatically from your smartphone (via iCloud, or some other cloud storage service like Box, Dropbox, etc) is a good idea.

    We’ve already seen (obviously ignorant) criminals get captured because of this cloud feature. Now, unfortunately, it may be necessary so that your smartphone uploads the video and photos you took before the officer has a chance to confiscate/break it.

  7. Rational Man

    many states also have laws about the audio recording, video is fine and does not require consent. It is the audio and the wire tapping laws. Penn is also illegal to audio record.

    • hotrodder98

      Tragically, it doesn’t send it to the cops. Because they’re not personally responsible for the judgment.

      Making the release of offending officers part of the court settlement/judgment would though …

      • No, but to their Insurance company they become a LIABILITY rather than an ASSET and they become UN-INSURABLE, which will land them out the door or NO PUBLIC CONTACT which BOTH is at least a START. If it’s true NO WHISTLE NO FOUL, the LAWSUIT will serve as the WHISTLE… Please, for ALL OUR SAKE, BLOW THE DAMN WHISTLE!!!

  8. snuggles

    Except for Illinois. We’ve got the worst laws in the land in this regard. Despite a judge declaring it unconstitutional, you can still get arrested for it. It’s all part of the “everyone needs to consent to being recorded.” And you can still be detained, whether or not it’s a legitimate reason or not.

      • snuggles

        Well you’ll end up getting arrested and charged, but you’ll find a sympathetic jury. Until the law actually changes and directives are issued, you’re still at risk.

        • EU Brainwashing

          Nothing will change if people do not stand-up to say this is wrong. And the best time to do that is at the time of the incident. Now if you do not have the guts for keeping the state and its paid goons in it s place, as protectors and servants of the people, then just admit it. I think calling-out ‘officer: you are losing your proper self-control’ is sufficient. Nobody should going to jail for that and if you fear you would then your country is in a very serious state of suppression.

  9. John Selden

    This is all well and good, but I’m not sure how useful it is. Ill-informed, thuggish cops are going to continue ordering people to stop recording. And if you don’t, citing the First Amendment, you’ll still be subject to arrest for disorderly conduct or failure to obey a police officer or some such nonsense. Not everyone has the time and/or money to miss work while sitting in jail, and then to bring a civil rights lawsuit after the fact.

    • That’s a fair point — filming police is still likely to provoke them, and may lead to the consequences you describe. And your smartphone may end up “broken” in the course of this (something else most people can’t afford).

      But I think your point also emphasizes why it’s important for more people to start filming the police — there is both safety in numbers, and it will (hopefully) teach police to get used to it. Some jurisdictions are already training police that getting filmed is now a part of their job. Let’s hope others follow.

    • EU Brainwashing

      What you going to do John – roll-over and let your nation degenerate into a police brutality state? If it is you getting smacked in the face by a state-paid goon would you prefer everybody passing-by to let them beat you an cower in fear or stand-up for you. If you ‘don’t know how useful it is’ frankly I think you just have not given the subject much and the correct level of thought or you are so cowered and conditioned by the power of the state and their representatives that you have lost touch with what an ‘inalienable’ right actually is.

      • Jack Dharma

        We are far, far from a “police brutality state.” The fact that films of police misconduct are so rare and make the news in part because of their rarity–in spite of the fact that a large percentage of Americans carry a phone capable of taking video–confirms that.

        However, since we are video’d in almost all public spaces, it seems only fair that the police are subject to the same observation.

        • EU Brainwashing

          It is a case of perception. I see the attitude of too many members of the US police forces as psychotic and demanding members of the public instantly kowtow to their authority. Here on this very comments section you have people expressing that if they ‘interfere’ with a brutal police action by video recording it they may likely be arrested or worse. Now fear is fear and I say it is rightly placed.

          In the UK where I live we have far less of this sort of attitude from the police and that is for one reason alone – it is generally not tolerated by the chain of command. Our police have a light touch and it works very well.

          See: The Nine Principles of Policing

          A brutal state will never solve a brutal society – it will only cause an every worsening spiral of violence. Now if you are deep thinking on this you need to consider why would a state/nation act in such a way, why allow such a violent and authoritarian system or culture of policing and prison. The answer is simple – it is deliberate. It makes profit for interested parties and it increases the level of control the state holds over society (which makes profits too). Simple and if you don’t ‘get it’ that is perhaps because you are inside the matrix looking out.

    • John Milton

      In other words, we really have come to the point where people are so comfortable in their middle class lives that they are willing to tolerate every step forward the government makes toward turning this nation into a total police state. Standing up for the rights is either too inconvenient or they are just too cowardly to do so.