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California Senate Bill 411 Signed into Law—Legal to Film Police Officers

Many California citizens have heard the demand from the police: “Sir, please turn off the camera,” or “turn off the camera, or we’ll arrest you,” or words to that effect. What most of us know who have had contacts with law enforcement, is that most cops hate filming.

From the academy training onward they reject this idea of being filmed. Police have the discipline to protect the city from potential lawsuits and to “take charge.” In fact, this remains contrary to what most people think. But the job of the police is not to protect citizens or their property.

Supreme Court Rules:

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the police did not have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm. Even a woman who had obtained a court-issued protective order against a violent…  (See also NY Times.)

The primary job of the municipal police is to protect gov. property, personnel and “policy.” (eg police.)

  • Officer safety, and many other reasons are given as reasons for police not being caught on tape.

According to attorney Michael Ehline:

When a citizen does not comply, many times he or she finds a ride to the local jail. The accused will face thousands in attorney’s fees for fighting off a frivolous Penal Code Section 148 charge.  But courts have already made clear that citizens can film police. Of course, this is with certain exceptions. For example, safety demands that filmers be well clear of the potential danger zone.

In the Golden State, each jurisdiction and department want to handle these primarily “false arrest” cases differently. Sadly, the many state prosecutorial agencies needed to see it in writing from the governor. So till that happened, they failed to force their officers to start honoring the law on filming police. But Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Bill 411. So now California is in accord with the Supreme Court on filming police while on duty.

This rule means when police officers detain a suspect or make an arrest, witnesses can use cell phones to record the incidents. Even the person that is detained may record the event. In the past, many of the recorded videos have later posted to social media websites or YouTube. Many have gone viral. According to Sacramento County Sgt. Jason Ramos, it is the way the world has become. Cops hate it!

  • Yawn

Sgt. Ramos did say that in many cases the officer’s jobs are more due to recording activity. So there is a potential for officers to become preoccupied with the people making the videos. The law officer went on to say there is a “fine line between being a diligent citizen with a camera and interfering.” I call nonsense. A diligent person would just remain outside the zone of interference. Then they would exercise good judgment. The film of the altercation can at least show evidence of reasonableness, or not.

Senate Bill 411

State Senator Ricardo Lara was the author of Senate Bill 411. And he says he believes it is essential for it to be clear in a statute. Now an average person can lawfully record a police officer without concern of arrest or intimidated.  Of course, knowing cops as I understand them, this will not stop cameras from being stomped. Also, other methods will likely get employed to “get control.”

Lara said that having the code in the state’s law helps cell phone evidence keep people safe. The new law comes after an early August incident. In that case, a Rohnert Park officer pointed a gun at a man who recorded the event on his cell phone. The officer is now facing a lawsuit. One of the cell phone videos recorded made national headlines. This was the Eric Garner choking video.

Lara said everyone has cell phones today. And now we may find them a useful way to “deter violence.” The Garner video is one of the examples. And mobile videos can provide evidence in police wrongdoing investigations. The Senator did make it clear that the bill does not in any way give citizens the legal right to interfere with police. But this is already what the law was before the bill passing.

Bill 411 Support

Sen. Lara had support from the ACLU for the bill. Lara said in a written statement the law would help to ensure every citizen can exercise their Constitutional right. Making audio or video recordings or taking photos is a protected right. The letter goes on to say it is a “clear constitutional right to photograph and record the police in the performance of their duties.”

The letter ends by stating the bill ensures the public’s right to gather information about their officials. Also, it shows abuses. And it may affect the functioning of government in a more general sense.

We applaud the ACLU’s efforts at getting the state to notify its agencies. But we question the need to spend so much time and energy on this bill. Passing a law to mandate what already is the law, is not an efficient administration of justice. Also, it sheds light on why jury nullification is making more and more sense.

More Reading:

http://www.dmlp.org/legal-guide/recording-police-officers-and-public-officials   Recording Police Officers and Public Officials | Digital Media Law Project

https://www.aclunc.org/our-work/know-your-rights/your-rights-and-police   ACLU of Northern California  Title: Know Your Rights: Police Interactions

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