Can I record police officers performing their duties in public?
December 22, 2006 2:06 AM   Subscribe

Can I use a video camera to record police officers performing their duties in public, in Illinois? I was threatened with jail tonight by a police officer if I didn't shut off the camera that was filming him. Here is the video with his threats.

I wasn't attempting to hide the camera, nor was I interfering with his duties in any way. The video records from the beginning of the encounter to when I shut it off in response to his threat. In this incident, we (the group) were doing absolutely nothing illegal and were let off after he took down our names and checked our IDs.

I was under the impression that filming police officers in the act was legal. Too many episodes of police brutality are caught by citizens on film that no state legislature could make recording public officers illegal.

Is it legal?

And even if it is legal, I'm assuming he would try to force me to stop filming somehow. What would the officer be likely to do? Arrest me for interfering with his job? Loitering? Would he try to seize the tape and camera as evidence (of some undisclosed crime)?

Another related question: in Illinois, can I refuse to identify myself to a police officer when stopped while walking on a public sidewalk at midnight? Illinois's stop-and-identify law says:


(725 ILCS 5/107‑14) (from Ch. 38, par. 107‑14)
Sec. 107‑14. Temporary questioning without arrest.
A peace officer, after having identified himself as a peace officer, may stop any person in a public place for a reasonable period of time when the officer reasonably infers from the circumstances that the person is committing, is about to commit or has committed an offense as defined in Section 102‑‑15 of this Code, and may demand the name and address of the person and an explanation of his actions. Such detention and temporary questioning will be conducted in the vicinity of where the person was stopped.
(Source: Laws 1968, p. 218.)


In this instance, a group of 5 18-year-olds (who, to be terribly stereotypical, do not look dangerous by community standards) were walking on a sidewalk with a bottle of sparkling cider (non-alcoholic, and the officer couldn't have seen the bottle before he stopped his car due to the darkness and fog). Maybe it's hard to tell from the description, but does this situation satisfy the burden of reasonable suspicion for the whole group? Assuming it does not, can I be completely silent or do I need to give a reason for my presence to show I'm not loitering? Personal anecdotes of resisting police demands to identify oneself would be greatly appreciated.
posted by jbb7 to Law & Government (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Even if it isn't illegal, are you SURE you want that video up there on Youtube? He'll probably never find it, but if he does he knows who you are.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:16 AM on December 22, 2006


I was going back and forth on posting it on Youtube. I suppose I'll take it down for now (and admins, if you read this, can you please remove the link?), until I get some answers on the legality. Until then, email me if you really want to see it. (I really would hate to live in a country where posting such a video is illegal.)
posted by jbb7 at 2:26 AM on December 22, 2006


You might want to check out this site that got into some legal trouble for posting a video tape of an arrest. It doesn't address the legality of making the video tape but in publishing the contents of tape.
posted by sexymofo at 4:13 AM on December 22, 2006


Is it legal to tape a police officer? In most states, yes, though there are broadcast restrictions. I'm a journalist in Michigan, not a lawyer, so I can't speak to Illinois.

Does that mean that he can't take you to jail for the night? Nope. It would be wrong, but all of your remedies are post facto.

You might want to call the precinct on the sly, as I'd wager that the captain probably doesn't want his officers acting like douchebags on tape.

(There was a case here a couple years back about plainclothes officers who were taping folks at Hash Bash, our annual pot fair, getting upset when people were taping them, saying that it interfered with the execution of their duties. The general rule is that if they're in public, anyone's fair game to be recorded.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:26 AM on December 22, 2006


A call to your local ACLU chapter is likely in order.
posted by caddis at 4:39 AM on December 22, 2006


I'll echo what caddis said and say that the ACLU would at least be interested in hearing about what happened. They can likely offer some further insight into the legality of your tape as well.
posted by pierow at 4:58 AM on December 22, 2006


Something similar happened on the campus of Southern Illinois University. Check the link:

Police seize student's film
posted by JigSawMan at 5:35 AM on December 22, 2006


klang's right. you can tape him--it's legal, and he was wrong to tell you to stop.

if you didn't, he'd bust you and it would be an issue for the department for a few days. in fact, they would probably just hold you for a few hours, and then realize what a shit storm they had, and then release you.

you might have remedies, then, but it would be a hassle to get them. and the cops would not be too happy about it.

a lot of this depends upon what kind of cop it was. city of chicago? prepare for a night in cook county. some of the other larger cities will also exert their abilities to make you uncomfortable--like joliet, elgin, aurora, and some of the downstate cities. i'd also be wary of the suburbs in cook county, as they can be a bit more brutal when they want to be.

but some small suburb outside of cook county? the cop will bring you in, and then the officer on watch will freak out.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 5:41 AM on December 22, 2006


Is it legal for individuals to tape police officers? Yes.

Is it legal for them to arrest you, "accidentally" break your camera in the process of doing so, and hold you for a day or two, then release you without charges? Yes, in the sense that "There are no effective legal remedies against the officer doing this to you". Minor mistreatment of private citizens by police officers is something that private citizens have no effective recourse against.

Choose wisely.
posted by jellicle at 5:49 AM on December 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


I think that the situation is a little different if you are in the group of people stopped by the police than if you are only a third party observer (it sounds like you were in the group stopped, but correct me if I'm wrong). If the police are stopping you to determine if you are committing a crime (drinking underage or whatever), they can tell you, for example, to keep your hands where they can see them. You can say, "but I have a right to put my hands in my pockets." That's true, but the police can escalate the situation if you seem to be a threat to them, yourself, or anyone else. You were pointing something at him/her in the dark, which isn't a good idea. He doesn't care that it's a camera, he cares that you are pointing some device at him. It's reasonable for him to tell you to cut it out while he is trying to assess the situation.

That's not to say that what the police did is automatically right. The officer might have just wanted you to put your toys away, stop pointing things at him, and listen to what he was saying, or he might have been an abusive jerk. Without seeing the video, I can't guess which. And this ACLU page is a good starting point for interacting with the police. Follow the script of the things you need to say or do to make your interaction with the police as brief and predictable as possible.
posted by peeedro at 6:00 AM on December 22, 2006


First of all you must remember that you don't have any Rights until a judge gives them to you. IE You can be arrested for certain unprovable infractions, held, booked, and brought to court, and then the Judge will determine whether or not it is all so much BS.

As for taping, I do recall a case in Massachusetts where the judge allowed videotaping without audio recording. Something to do with the wiretapping laws.
posted by Gungho at 6:21 AM on December 22, 2006


you don't have any Rights until a judge gives them to you.
There are these things called Constitutions. They give you rights; judges don't.

Is it legal for them to arrest you, "accidentally" break your camera in the process of doing so, and hold you for a day or two, then release you without charges? Yes, in the sense that "There are no effective legal remedies against the officer doing this to you".
This is not the commonly-accepted meaning of the word "legal," especially since there certainly are remedies.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:52 AM on December 22, 2006


This is not the commonly-accepted meaning of the word "legal," especially since there certainly are remedies.

Sure, but only after the fact and after a lot of struggle and suffering. I think jellicle was saying if you get lippy with the wrong cop you will get to spend the night in jail and your camera will be confiscated and held as evidence until your trial (or worse). The court's post facto remedy will not likely be as satisfying as avoiding the holding facilities.
posted by peeedro at 7:01 AM on December 22, 2006


Something else to keep in mind. Police are allowed to make false promises of arrests, ass-kicking, and all sorts of things. Intimidation is part of a beat cop's job. You can tape him, and he can threaten you.

On the other hand, it's not a perfect world, and the fact that you're in the right doesn't mean that you're going to get away with it. The cop probably knows the law better than you, and he can come up with something you're doing that might possibly be illegal (loitering? taping without a permit?). He could also argue that you *were* interfering with his work. Heck, if you pointed a camera at me for more than a few seconds, I would argue that you were interfering with my work, and I sit in front of a computer all day.

The moral of the story: cops are best taped from a distance.
posted by bingo at 7:03 AM on December 22, 2006


Poster: You can be right, or you can be happy. It's a choice you'll face over and over again in life.

Will you be "in the right" if you continue taping? Yes, you will. But you will be made very unhappy in the process.

If you stop, you're relinquishing "being right", but I guaran-damn-tee, you'll be happier for it.
posted by Merdryn at 7:05 AM on December 22, 2006


You are perfectly within your rights to videotape police officers in public, from a distance in which you are not interfering with their duties. In some places you may be forbidden to make an audio record, however.

But I strongly recommend that you have multiple people with you, and that at least one person's camera is hidden, if possible, so that when an officer kicks the shit out of you - and if you tape enough of them, one will - you have proof that you didn't just clumsily trip into the officer's baton then grab his pepper spray and apply it directly to your cornea with a q-tip.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:39 AM on December 22, 2006


Sure, but only after the fact and after a lot of struggle and suffering. . . The court's post facto remedy will not likely be as satisfying as avoiding the holding facilities.
Which is why "remedy" is the applicable word. If jellicle had said "there is no way to prevent a cop from . . ." then the argument would be slightly different. I would still object to defining "legal" as "something that you can't stop a cop from doing" though.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:42 AM on December 22, 2006


Somewhat off topic, but ff you're arrested w/out probable cause, isn't that a violation of 42 U.S.C. 1983 (aka a Bivens Claim?). In which case, couldn't a person bring a civil action against the officer for damages?

As for video taping, i don't know IL law, but I'd imagine that if the officer was in a public place, then you could video tape him. And if the officer cannot point to particular reasons beyond a "hunch" that you were committing an offense as defined by Section 102‑‑15 of the IL Code, then the officer didn't have the right to ask to see your ID; or, better put, you had no obligation to honor his request (he can ask whatever he wants...).
posted by herc at 8:57 AM on December 22, 2006


You might want to search for some of the rules a photographer needs to follow when shooting public scenes. Briefly, if it's in public it's fair game. There are exceptions though and a peace officer may be one of them.

I wish I could do some research to help you but I gotta catch a plane.
posted by chairface at 9:22 AM on December 22, 2006


A previous askme on stop and identify.

A post on reasonable suspicion and walking while non-white.

I can't seem to find the one about the rights of photographers. Mayhaps it was in the blue.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 9:58 AM on December 22, 2006


gaucho, I think this is what was referenced in that other thread.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:08 AM on December 22, 2006


You generally have the right to photograph anyone and everyone that is in public. And you don't have to stop if they ask you to.

That said, a cop might find that you are somehow interfering with his duties. And a judge might agree. There's no big list of what counts as "interfering" as what doesn't written up somewhere. Probably not, though. A judge would be likely to agree that the arrest was unjustified. But the cop would probably be immune to any lawsuit based on the qualified immunity of gov't officials who reasonably believe they are acting legally.

Always remember: Cops are not lawyers. Cops do not make up the law. What a cop says isn't the law. Cops have to follow the law. And a cop is not in the business of meting out punishment.
posted by yesno at 11:19 AM on December 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


Always remember: Cops are not lawyers. Cops do not make up the law.

Always remember: Lawyers are not cops. Lawyers do not make up the law. Legislators, that we vote for, make up the law, provided that it's within the framework of various federal, state, and local constitutions.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 1:29 PM on December 22, 2006


First, IANAL, nor even someone with an intricate working of the legal system. (My main claims to any sort of legal experience are listening to a police scanner a lot and writing the newspaper's police logs for my college campus... Neither of which permits me to give very sound advice.)

I think it'd be very hard to prove that the officer had no reason to stop you in the first place, even though, from the sound of it, he really didn't. He could lie and say that he had seen the bottle. Or, as happened to one of my friends, claim that you matched the description of someone who had just committed a crime. Or maybe he could say he was just getting out for a breath of fresh air, coincidentally near you guys, but you acted suspiciously when he stopped, and thus he investigated.

From the section you pasted, it sounds like the issue of whether you had to identify yourself hinged upon whether or not he had reason to believe you had committed a crime. This kind of comes back to the point I just made: even if he really didn't, it wouldn't have been hard for him to make something up. But I also think it's a bit like refusing to allow officers to search your car: you're entirely within your rights to refuse it, but your refusal will be construed as awfully suspicious. You'd probably have just escalated the problems if you'd refused to show him ID.

I'm 99% confident that you were within your rights to videotape him in public. As an official of the government, or really, just anyone in public, he had no reasonable expectation of privacy. Again, though, when asked by a cop to stop, it's really in your best interest to oblige. Hypothetically, he could probably also try to stick you with charges of disobeying a police officer.

The last bit is that, from working with my campus police force do to the police logs, I've come to realize that they have enormous discretion in what ends up happening to people. In the instance of people being caught with marijuana, for example, most people are just 'prosecuted' through the school, but there was one incident this semester with some people who were real jerks to the officers and kept maintaining that they, "Knew their rights." They ended up being taken into custody and criminally charged with several different offenses.

So, long story short: you might have been within your rights to not show ID, and you almost certainly would have been within your rights to keep videotaping. But that doesn't mean that you wouldn't spent a night in jail and have to go to court to fight a bunch of BS charges. I think you did the right thing in complying with his wishes.
posted by fogster at 2:43 PM on December 22, 2006


There are these things called Constitutions. They give you rights; judges don't.

Actually, there are these things called Constitutions. They guarantee your rights, they don't give them to you, they're yours as a matter of your existence.
posted by Dreama at 3:18 PM on December 22, 2006


I also think it's a bit like refusing to allow officers to search your car: you're entirely within your rights to refuse it, but your refusal will be construed as awfully suspicious.

I may be wrong, but I think that officers have the authority to search your car, glove compartment included (but the trunk is off limits w/out probable cause to search). Officer safety being the justifcation, and a limited expectation of privacy w/in a car being the excuse. So if the cop has cause to pull you over, likely the cop has permission to search your car; resisting likely won't help your cause.
posted by herc at 5:02 PM on December 22, 2006


Thanks for all the replies. The sense I've gotten, which I had dreaded but should have expected, is that it's irrelevant whether filming police officers is legal. The only thing that matters to 99% of people (that is, those without infinite time, money, and patience to fight it out in court) is whether it'll get them arrested and thrown in jail. And it appears that filming a police officer will lead to that.
posted by jbb7 at 6:41 PM on December 22, 2006


herc, I'm pretty sure you're wrong. If they can see a gun or crackpipe in plain view on your dash or back seat, then they've got probable cause to search the rest of the car, but they can't just search under your seats or in the glove compartment for no reason. A burned out tail light or speeding violation won't cut it. Check peeedro's post and link for more info.
posted by jaysus chris at 10:37 PM on December 22, 2006


Dreama, I'm afraid the rights you have by reason of your existence are pretty much limited to the right to die. Persons in, say - China - would be foolish to try and exercise many of the rights that the U.S. Constitution guarantees its citizens.

The other side of the coin is that if no one in the U.S. exercises a particular right, as time passes it becomes harder to preserve that right. If everyone always bows to police authority, that authority will ignore rights, whether they are Constitutionally-guaranteed or not.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:58 AM on December 23, 2006


Herc, I also disagree with your point about Police searching your car. There are nuances, but if you get pulled over and the cop asks to search your car, I'm personally for always always always saying no. No matter how harshly he phrases it, unless he has probable cause, he is still asking your permission and cannot go forward without it.

Perhaps a repeat, but I hope all Americans will read and know this quick ACLU summary of your rights if stopped (and the same for everyone else).
posted by gbinal at 4:55 PM on January 3, 2007


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