Is it Legal to Film Police Officers?
Police activity has been in the spotlight in St. Louis, and Nationwide since the Ferguson, Missouri riots began this past August. As riots escalated, numerous arrests were made because reporters or witnesses took out their phones to capture footage of police officers assigned to the scene. Leaving many to ask the question: Is it legal to film police officers?
The situation isnít isolated to St. Louis, Missouri. There have been several cases nationwide in which police officers order people to turn off their video cameras.
In fact, it is your constitutional right to videotape or photograph things that are plainly visible in public spaces. That includes videotaping police officers while they are at work.
When you are in a public space, you are free to videotape or photograph anything in plain view. Itís a very important aspect of any free society, as it keeps a balance of power between the government and its citizens. Itís important to know that you have this right.
Careful not to think that your right to photograph allows you to break any other laws. If you have to trespass to record the video, you can still be charged with trespassing. Additionally, when you are on private property, the property owner can set the rules. Thatís their right to privacy. If you photograph or videotape against the wishes of the property owner, they can order you off their property, and may even have you arrested for trespassing.
Officers need a warrant to go through your phone to see what youíve recorded. If an officer asks you to hand over your phone, you do not have to comply until they obtain a warrant. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether law enforcement can view photos or video on other devices like a digital camera. The only time a police officer can confiscate your camera temporarily is in extreme circumstances. For example, if the information on your camera is somehow necessary in saving someoneís life.
Officers cannot delete your photographs or video. This is considered tampering of evidence, and the officer may face felony charges if they delete your digital property.
A police officer cannot legally detain you unless you have committed a crime, or are in the process of committing a crime. Remember, videotaping police officers is not a crime. So if a cop stops you, politely ask them ďam I free to go?Ē If they say no, they are detaining you, and you can ask them what crime you are suspected of committing.
As long as youíre not obstructing anything the officer is doing, it is perfectly legal, and within your first amendment right, to film or photograph police officers. This is true in all of Missouri, and everywhere else in the United States.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stephen Schultz
Stephen Schultz has been listed in The Best Lawyers in America©. Best Lawyers is the oldest and most highly-respected peer review guide to the legal profession worldwide. Such a listing is widely regarded by both clients and legal professionals as a significant honor, conferred on a lawyer by his or her peers.
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.