You have the right to film police in public.
But the First Amendment does not provide a blank check to interfere with investigations, arrests or confrontations.
Police have every right to ask you to move if they believe you are in a position that interferes with their ability to investigate a possible crime or enforce the law against suspected bad guys, says ACLU of Southern California senior staff attorney Peter Bibring.
They might ask you to move because they believe you're in an unsafe spot or in the line of fire. They might be clearing a street of rioters or dealing with a hostile crowd. Maybe someone needs space for medical treatment. There's no VIP pass for people with iPhones.
In those situations, your best bet is probably to move. “Officers do have some leeway to ask people to stand back,” Bibring said.
He suggests that all you citizen watchdogs out there, and there seems to be a growing number of you, calmly tell the officer directing you, “I don't want to get in the way but, I do want to film. Where can I stand?”
That gives cops a lot of power, which they already had anyway, so we don't blame you for being wary. Bibring acknowledges that authorities can and do bend their power to make you move in order to make filming harder or impossible.
In the case of a woman filming a law enforcement operation from a sidewalk a few houses down from the action last weekend, her cellphone was snatched and kicked by a U.S. Marshal.
New video of the South Gate confrontation (below) shows the woman arguing with police and standing her ground after the lawmen say she's in the possible line of fire. They wanted her across the street. But at that point it appeared that suspects were face down on a lawn.
Two law enforcement officers stood on the sidewalk with their backs to the woman, which appeared to have the effect of blocking her view.
“There may be a situation where an officer violates someone's First Amendment rights by telling them to stand further back than can possibly be justified by safety concerns,” Bibring said:
The general rule is you can film any place you're lawfully allowed to be. Officers do have a right to tell you move back far enough to where you're not physically interfering. But that has to be based on something. They can't single you out for taking photographs.
South Gate's Beatriz Paez, who showed her smashed smartphone off to reporters this week, is planning to sue authorities.
Last year Beverly Hills Courier reporter Victoria Talbot was covering the police shooting of a suspected bank robber at the Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel when she says she was physically removed by an officer despite being behind yellow crime scene tape.
She reported that the tape was then moved further back.
Bibring says there's no metric for how close you can be to an active investigation, unfortunately. He suggests 10 or 15 feet would be reasonable for filming. But he also says the law has to be flexible for both sides.
For example, filming police action from behind a wall, on private property, could safely put you closer to the action than 10 feet. On the other hand, a suspect waving a gun could very well prompt authorities to keep you off the block entirely.
The biggest concern for civil libertarians when it comes to confrontations over filming cops is that police have sometimes indicated that the act of videography is, in itself, an act of obstruction.
The ACLU supports a proposal by state Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens. His office says the legislation would …
… clarify individuals’ First Amendment right to record police officers by clarifying that a civilian recording while an officer is in a public place, or the person recording is in a place he or she has the right to be, is not violating the law. Additionally, it makes clear that recording does not constitute reasonable suspicion to detain a person or probable cause to arrest.
Lara says people have been wrongly arrested just for filming cops in L.A., Torrance, and San Diego and Orange County.
South Bay U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn said she is drafting a resolution to “officially, publicly and collectively reaffirm the rights of citizens to film law enforcement officers,” according to her office.
She also called for a federal investigation into the actions of that U.S. Marshal who snatched Paez's phone.
California lawmaker Lara said that people filming police are society's eyes and ears, and they sometimes catch cops engaging in behavior that doesn't make their official reports.
“We know that many incidents of wrongdoing that have come to light are only because members of the public have recorded them,” he said.