Police activity has been in the spotlight in St. Louis, and Nationwide since the Ferguson, Missouri riots began this past August. The riots began following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot in Ferguson by police officer Darren Wilson, 28.
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. In one such case, Huffington Post Reporter, Ryan J. Reilly, and Washington Post reporter, Wesley Lowrey were detained after attempting to film a group of police officers inside a McDonalds.
Both Reilly and Lowrey were later released due to the fact that they had not broken any laws.
Videotaping Cops is Legal in All 50 States
The situation isn’t isolated to St. Louis, Missouri. There have been several cases nationwide in which police officers order people to turn off their video cameras. Mickey Osterreicher, an attorney with the National Press Photographers Association said in an interview that, “there are many officers that believe that that the minute they tell somebody to do or not do something, that that’s an order, but police can only order to do or not do something based on the law, and there is no law that says you cannot record or photograph out in public.”
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.
Photographing in Public vs. Private Spaces
When you are in a public space, you are free to videotape or photograph anything in plain view. It’s a very important aspect of any free society, as it keeps a balance of power between the government and its citizens. It’s 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. That’s 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.
Your Photos and Videos are Your Property
Officers need a warrant to go through your phone to see what you’ve 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 someone’s 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.
What to Do If You’re Stopped By Police for Taking Video or Pictures
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 “am I free to go?” If they say no, they are detaining you, and you can ask them what crime you are suspected of committing.
As long as you’re 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.