Are COPS Cameramen legal?
September 7, 2008 12:32 PM   Subscribe

On TV shows like COPS, what gives the cameraman standing to enter a private citizen's home?

To avoid confusion, I should mention that I'm asking solely out of curiosity, not seeking a legal opinion. I suspect that, after the incident, the TV producer will ask for your permission to use it (probably in return for compensation), but I'm not asking about that.

What I'm asking is about the cameraman coming into your home at all. It would seem to me that a FOX cameraman accompanying police wouldn't be allowed to follow them into your home. But it happens often on the show. So how does this work? Has the fact that a commercial film crew followed police into one's home ever been used, in some way, as a defense in court? Has the show ever been sued (successfully?) over the cameraman coming into private homes?

Yes, the majority of content occurs in public, like traffic stops or street brawls. I'm not asking about those.
posted by fogster to Law & Government (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It could be easy to "deputize" the camera man, yet to broadcast later you'd need release.
posted by thilmony at 1:02 PM on September 7, 2008

Regarding consent, check out this article from Mental Floss that says 90% of the arrestees sign a release form (#4).
posted by nitsuj at 1:05 PM on September 7, 2008

Best answer: I just submitted the question here, you can do the same and see what you get.
posted by Science! at 2:15 PM on September 7, 2008

Best answer: Think about most of the people you see in those homes that are entered into. I know it strays a bit into profiling, but for the most part they aren't the educated, well-off types who are well familiar with their legal rights. There's a sad culture of fear and domination that cops in America have pretty widely and evenly generated over the parts of society that they have to interact with most - low income, low educated families that are more prone to wind-up in situations requiring cops (and thus the accompanying camera crews) to pay them a visit. The first thought in their head probably isn't "wait a minute these cops don't have the right to do XYZ" so much as its "this guy is big and he has a gun and other big friends with guns." The camera crew is probably an after thought for many of them at that point.

Even sadder, perhaps, than that culturing of fear is the fact that a voyeuristic show like Cops, focused really more on the victims and perpetrators of violence, drug use, and other misdemeanors (and sometimes felonies). Let's face it - people don't watch the show to see how well the cop handles a battered wife and a drunk husband, they watch it to see the latter and their dismal situation. I suppose people like watching it because it makes them feel good that their own situation isn't quite so bad. Whatever the motivation, we can't escape the fact that we've made entertainment out of the plight of those that our society has largely marginalized. I digress.

Back to your question, as far as my understanding of the law goes, in any state in the union, anyone entering your home against your will is unlawful entry unless its a cop with a warrant or cops with reason to believe someone is in immediate danger within your home (although I'm sure that latter part varies by state in its particulars). I would speculate that FOX has pretty good lawyers and in the very small percentage of the times that a homeowner realized his rights and did the legwork of pursuing legal recourse against the network for unlawful entry, they've been able to settle out of court - and probably for a lot less than they should have.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:05 PM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Reality TV class action lawsuit (hospital show)

Mistaken police raid may bring lawsuit
posted by dhartung at 4:04 PM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cops got people to sign waivers (after they were caught). There was an article about the guy who had the job of convincing people to let Cops put their humiliating shirtless arrest on TV for free.

Then there was some sort of lawsuit about how it was unfair to ask people to sign legal documents while handcuffed, etc. The later seasons of Cops are filmed entirely from the street. Then it went off the air.
posted by meta_eli at 4:20 PM on September 7, 2008

COPS is still on the air. Last night was the season premier (in the US).
posted by i love cheese at 5:22 PM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

In answer to your last question, fogster, the answer is "yes." In fact, there is a famous Supreme Court case on this exact issue, Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603 (1999), in which the Court unanimously found that the Fourth Amendment was violated when the police invited a Washington Post reporter and photographer to to the execution of an arrest warrant in a home even though no photos taken at the home were ever published. (Justice Stevens dissented in part, but only to the qualified immunity part of the opinion, not the Fourth Amendment part.)

How does COPS still operate in light of Wilson? The answer is "(1) consent, (2) not riding along when arrest or search warrants are executed, and (3) mostly filming stuff that happens on public streets."

From a longer article about ride-alongs:

"A representative of the television series COPS, which is in its fifteenth season of production commented that having a good understanding of Fourth Amendment rights and respecting the right to privacy has allowed the show to flourish without difficulty before and after Wilson vs. Layne. The producers of the show operate with signed consents from the departments providing the ride-alongs and adhere to individual department policies. Also, no footage is aired without the written consent of the person filmed.

Unlike television news, COPS is in a documentary format and rarely is involved in the service of a search warrant or entry into a residence without consent. The majority of filming is conducted on public property. In all cases, the rights of the individuals filmed are considered extremely important by show producers and, in their opinion, common sense and professionalism has been the key to success."


I don't feel like doing a Westlaw search to confirm or deny my suspicions, but I'd be surprised if TV shows like COPS didn't get sued over allegedly violating Wilson from time to time.


Oh and please, folks, if you don't know the answer to the question, just don't post one, mmmkay?
posted by saslett at 9:33 PM on September 7, 2008

@Science!, I wrote in and asked them this very question on that very site about two years ago. I didn't hear a peep back. Your mileage may vary.
posted by idiotking at 10:12 PM on September 7, 2008

Perhaps the TV station offered them money ? I don't see why a criminal would give
consent if they had nothing to gain.
posted by petepr at 11:46 AM on July 17, 2009

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