Although we live in a surveillance society of "be afraid" and nearly anything could be considered suspicious activity, you are under video surveillance pretty much anywhere you go. If you turn that around by using a mobile phone to film or photograph the police, then it can sometimes get you treated like a terrorist. Previously PoliceOne warned cops to watch out for the growing trend of citizens secretly recording police with the OpenWatch app. The app is meant "to serve as 'a global participatory counter-surveillance project which uses cellular phones as a way of monitoring authority figures', primarily police."
The ACLU came out strong in support of your rights to both photograph and film the police. In fact, the ACLU wants you to know that "you have every right to photograph that cop" and it keeps "a critical check and balance" to help insure that those in authority don't abuse their power. In fact, "Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right - and that includes the outside of federal buildings, as well as transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties."
After the ACLU appeal win that ruled "Americans have a First Amendment right to videotape police making an arrest in a public park," the ACLU created a "new web resource on photographers' rights, including a "Know Your Rights" page. Everyone - photographers and police - should be clear on what rights we have in America when engaging in photography in public spaces."
Way too often, those in authority use intimidation tactics on photographers or a videographers to delete whatever was recorded, or arrest them, with some going so far as to destroy evidence. Is that not a crime? Some authority figures wield fear like a weapon, but if someone if going to point and shoot at you, wouldn't you rather it be with a camera? Taking a photo is not a crime and photographers are not terrorists.
Pics or it didn't happen? You don't hear much about the Secret Service, but in February 2010, according to the ACLU, "uniformed Secret Service officers on patrol in front of the White House detained a man for taking photographs of them in a public plaza swarming with tourists, journalists and cameras of all kinds. They demanded his identification, and told him, 'Since you took a picture of us we're going to take a picture of you for our records,' taking down his identification and photographing him."
How about video proof? It's legal in Philadelphia to record the police performing official duties in public, but two people were abused and arrested for 'disorderly conduct' after using their phones to record a video of the police slamming a woman's head against a police cruiser. FourthAmendment related this sick story of what happened after recording when they started to walk away. Shakir Riley said, "At least five baton-wielding cops followed him." Then the cops "beat him, poured a soda on his face and stomped on his phone, destroying the video he had just taken." Meanwhile cops urged Melissa Hurling "to leave" and then "slammed her against a police cruiser." She added, "They pulled her by her hair before tossing her into the back of a cop car."
In the spirit of See Something, Say Something ads, David at Injustice Everywhere created the awesome poster below as a "subtle swipe at states that try to outlaw filming police in public."
According to the ACLU's Know Your Rights Photographers, "With regards to videotaping, there is an important legal distinction between a visual photographic record (fully protected) and the audio portion of a videotape, which some states have tried to regulate under state wiretapping laws." There is a "disturbing trend" for "police officers and prosecutors using wiretapping statutes in certain states (such as Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) to arrest and prosecute those who attempt to record police activities using videocameras that include audio."
Michael Allison from Illinois is facing a vindictive 75 years in prison for recording the police; that's equal to illegal eavesdropping times five, since each felony count could get him 15 years in prison. His sin? He recorded cops while disputing a fine for working on unregistered cars parked on his mom's property. As TechDirt said, "the Illinois Assistant Attorney General is arguing that there is no such thing as a right to film the police. Shouldn't there be a rule that if you're totally ignorant of basic Constitutional rights, you don't get to be Attorney General of anything?"
In a similar case, a Chicago woman was charged with eavesdropping but was later acquitted. She used her BlackBerry to record two internal affairs cops who were trying to talk her into dropping a sexual harassment complaint against another cop. The recording captured intimidation tactics like she was "wasting her time because it was basically her word against that of the patrol officer." That same recording convinced the jury that "if what those two investigators were doing wasn't criminal, we felt it bordered on criminal, and she had the right to record it."
If you want to get really irked over the way photography and videography is treated like a crime, you should read some of the stories on Carlos Miller's Photography is Not a Crime site. Or Escape the Tyranny's report about video recordings. The Agitator goes one step further, stating, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse . . . unless you are in law enforcement."
"Want a surveillance society? Be prepared to live in it," wrote Glenn Reynolds at the Washington Examiner. "You can't arrest everyone with a camera, especially when you don't even know they've got a camera... America has a class of government workers who believe that they are above citizen scrutiny, and who are prepared to abuse their powers to avoid that scrutiny. The only solution for this is to punish offenders severely enough that others learn their lesson."
If you are stopped after snapping photos, the ACLU says to politely ask "am I free to go?" If you don't ask to leave, then "your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal." If you are detained, "remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity."
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Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. Smith has a diverse background in information technology, programming, web development, IT consulting, and information security. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.
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