If a cop is in a public place carrying out his duties, then he is subject to recording, and there isn’t anything the cops can do to stop it from happening. The only thing you can’t do is interfere with the situation; if you can record from a distance and keep out of the way, the officer has no right to confiscate your device; even if they do ask you to stop interfering with their duties, they cannot destroy film legally.
If you find yourself needing to record a situation for an Orange County car accident attorney, there are a few golden rules to keep in mind to keep yourself as safe from possible.
- Understand the Law
When small recording devices were merely the toys of secret agents, most eavesdropping laws were designed to keep people from safe from peeping Toms and spies. Now that the average citizen can readily access this kind of technology, prosecutors and police alike try to abuse the law to punish honest citizens looking to document an on-duty officer.
In 38 states, the law clearly permits citizens to film police without interfering with their work physically. Some officers may still attempt to harass you, arrest you or take away your device, citing disorderly conduct or obstruction of justice. However, you cannot be charged for illegally filming an officer in these states.
Other states require the consent of all parties to film a conversation, but police officers in a public setting still don’t quite fall under this category; there is no place in the United States that explicitly prohibits filming police where the public is permitted.
- Be Calm and Polite
You don’t get a choice which cop you encounter; you might come across Officer Friendly without a problem, or Officer Ego might start acting salty the moment he sees a pointed lens. When you’re filming cops, be ready to think quickly.
In most cases, the cop won’t confiscate your camera immediately. If they’re not trained well, they may think that you’re challenging their authority; in other cases, the cops may just not be aware of this law. Part of your job is to assure that you pose no threat without backing down.
Cops don’t get filmed daily like a celebrity would, so they might approach you and ask what you’re doing; avoid saying negative things like “I don’t trust you” or “I want to make sure you do your job correctly.” Instead, stand your ground with law: “I’m not interfering with your duties, officer; I am just asserting my First Amendment right to document and record you offsite.”
Most officers should behave at this point, provided you’re calm and not attempting to challenge them. They may ask if you work for someone, but you can respond saying you’re a citizen journalist with a blog, or an independent filmmaker; you don’t have to lie to earn your First Amendment right, which extends to all citizens and not just media journalists.
For instance, if a cop tells you that you are impeding on his liberties, you can say “With all due respect, the state law only requires one party’s permission to record a conversation. Your permission is not needed if I am not interfering with your duties.”
If you happen to live in one of the states that requires all parties to consent, you may instead try something like “I’m aware of the law, officer, but the courts ruled that this does not extend to filming on-duty police.”
If you’re on federal property, gently remind them a directive was recently issued that it is perfectly legal to photograph and film at federal buildings.
- Don’t Send the Video to the Police
If you happen to capture police brutality or an officer otherwise misbehaving or breaking the law, consider uploading to YouTube; this is the safest legal option, provided you have not identified yourself in the video. For instance, a woman in Massachusetts posted a video of a cop beating a motorist with his flashlight; she was largely able to avoid police harassment while the guilty officer was exposed.
To conclude, as long as you’re keeping a safe distance and don’t try to challenge the officer’s authority, you should have no legal trouble with filming.
Jeremy Sutter is a tech and business writer from Simi Valley, CA. He’s worked for Adobe, Google, and himself. He lives for success stories, and hopes to be one someday…