Good Cop, Bad Citizen? As Cellphone Recording Increases, Officers Are Uneasy
Walking past Boston Common, the city’s august park, in 2007, attorney Simon Glik noticed several police officers arresting a young man. Glik heard another bystander say he thought the police were using excessive force. So he pulled out his cellphone and began shooting video of the incident.
After arresting the young man, one of the officers turned to Glik, saying, “I think you have taken enough pictures.” When the officer asked Glik whether his audio recorder was on, Glik acknowledged it was. Glik was then arrested for violating a state wiretap law and two other state offenses.
The charges were subsequently dropped, but for Glik that was just the beginning. He filed a constitutional tort suit alleging violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The officers filed a motion to dismiss, contending they were entitled to qualified immunity, enabling government officials to avoid liability if they don’t violate clearly established constitutional or statutory law. But a federal district court denied the officers’ claim.
And last August, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Boston ruled in Glik v. Cunniffe that the officers violated Glik’s clearly established constitutional right to video-record the police performing their duties in public.
“Our recognition that the First Amendment protects the filming of government officials in public spaces accords with the decisions of numerous circuit and district courts,” the panel wrote. The case went back to the federal district court and the parties are in discovery.
With the ubiquity of cellphones, the ease of video-recording and the availability of such websites as YouTube, people can respond quickly to police incidents and broadly circulate the recordings.
POINT AND SHOOT
“The prevalence of cellphone cameras with high enough resolutions for people to record the police and then be able to disseminate it over the Internet” is a major reason for the video-recording, says Boston attorney Jeffrey P. Hermes, director of the Citizen Media Law Project.
But law officers are often uncomfortable. “Many officers are also uncomfortable that their activities might be displayed on the Internet and otherwise widely distributed,” says Portland, Ore., lawyer Bert P. Krages, who specializes in the area. “Some also have the impression that photography presents a security risk and are acting according to a post-9/11 mentality.”
Adds Krages: “Law enforcement personnel are still grappling with the idea that ordinary citizens have the right to take images, whereas previously such photographs and videos were taken by professionals employed by traditional media companies.”
“When you talk about citizen journalists, there is also a slightly different relationship between those individuals and the police and the relationship that many mainstream journalists have with the police,” Hermes says. “Those mainstream journalists who cover the police have developed an understanding with the police that many private individuals have not.”
The 1st Circuit found it irrelevant that Glik was a private citizen rather than a professional journalist. “The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders with a ready cellphone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew,” the court said. “Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.”
CASES IN PLAY
Glik is far from the only case. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois also has a case pending in the Chicago-based 7th Circuit that challenges the constitutionality of the Illinois Eavesdropping Act, as it applies to making video and audio recordings of police performing their public duties.
ACLU of Illinois v. Alvarez, filed in August 2010, claims the broad nature of the Illinois law may expose ACLU members to arrest. “The act makes audio-recording police officers in these circumstances a felony,” the complaint states. “Due to a reasonable fear of arrest and prosecution, the ACLU is restrained from engaging in this conduct.”
A federal district court dismissed the case as moot in October 2010 and the ACLU appealed. Oral argument took place in the 7th Circuit last September.
In May 2011, Emily Good was arrested in Rochester, N.Y., for taking video of police conducting a traffic stop on the street in front of her yard. According to published accounts, police told her they didn’t feel safe with her there. She was later taken into custody.
In April 2010, Anthony Graber faced an indictment in Abingdon, Md., after he recorded a state trooper giving him a ticket and then posted the video on YouTube. Graber, a 25-year-old staff sergeant for the Maryland Air National Guard, was riding his motorcycle down Interstate 95. On top of his helmet was a camera he often used to record his journeys.
The camera was rolling when an unmarked gray sedan cut him off. A man wielding a gun emerged from the driver’s side, yelling at Graber and ordering him to get off his bike. Only then did the state trooper identify himself and holster his weapon. Graber was cited for doing 80 in a 65-mph zone.
Graber accepted his ticket, then posted his video. A few weeks later, he was awakened by six officers raiding his parents’ home, where he lived with his wife and two children. He learned later that a grand jury indictment alleged he had violated state wiretap laws by recording the trooper without his consent.
“Police justifications come in a few different flavors,” Hermes says. There are security concerns and charges of violating wiretap laws, which vary by state. But police also claim they are covered by qualified immunity. The doctrine shields government officials from liability for the violation of an individual’s federal constitutional rights—so long as the official’s actions, even if later found to be unlawful, did not violate “clearly established law.”
David Milton, a Boston-based attorney who represents Glik, points to the 2010 case Kelly v. Borough of Carlisle. There the 3rd Circuit at Philadelphia granted qualified immunity to a police officer who arrested a passenger in a vehicle he had pulled over for speeding. The officer discovered the passenger was video-recording him and claimed the passenger violated Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act. The appeals court determined that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because he reasonably believed he had the authority to arrest the passenger.
Part of the problem, Milton says, stems from a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Pearson v. Callahan, in which the justices said lower courts had the option of deciding cases based on whether the law was clearly established, without first determining whether there had been a violation of individual constitutional rights.
But Glik altered the balance, saying there is a clearly established right to monitor the police. “On the First Amendment issue, the concept that there is a clearly established right seems consistent with prior case law in the 1st Circuit and the experience of media recording in public as long as there have been video cameras,” Hermes says. “For decades we have had television stations recording in public and not facing sanctions.”
Adds Milton: “What is so good about the 1st Circuit decision in Glik is that the judges recognized that even though there may not be a prior case of a police officer in a park with a person on a cellphone, basic long-standing First Amendment principles clearly apply to the situation even though it involves new technology.”
Although there is no Supreme Court ruling that finds a right to record in public, Hermes says, many believe there is a clearly established constitutional right to monitor the police.
“Police serve a vital function and most law enforcement officers are very decent people who should be commended,” Krages says.
“However,” he adds, “the police are in a position to grossly abuse civil liberties, and the bad ones cause a lot of harm. In many situations, a determination of what actually happened comes down to deciding whether the officer is more credible than a suspect or citizen. Consumer-level imaging, particularly video, has captured images of officers acting very inappropriately in all sorts of situations.”