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Can the police stop photographers from taking photos?

The shooting of unarmed 18-year old, Michael Brown, in Ferguson County, Missouri has once again made police brutality a topic of conversation across the media landscape. Some may think that police brutality is on the rise, but more likely, its mobile technology that has brought these incidents to light. With the majority of people in the U.S. owning a smart phone and a high-resolution camera, taking photos of events that would have gone unnoticed a few years ago are now being made available to the public.

Only last month, Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, died from an illegal police chokehold during an encounter on Staten Island, New York. On July 1, 51 year-old Marlene Pinnock, a homeless woman, was attacked by a California Highway Patrol officer on a freeway west of downtown Los Angeles. Both of these were caught on camera. Now, the Ferguson shooting has caused riots and civil unrest.

While digital photography has become the indispensable technology in combating police brutality, photographers are also finding themselves in altercations with the police. Police are forcing photographers to stop taking photos, sometimes making them leave the area or even confiscating their equipment, exemplified in an incident with two reporters, just yesterday. The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery were arrested after a SWAT Team entered a McDonalds where the two reporters were working while covering the riots in Ferguson. Reilly snapped a photo of the Team prompting one of the officers to ask him for his identification. He instead requested the officer’s name, whereupon the officer shoved his things into a bag and put him in a pressure hold. According to Reilly, “They essentially acted as a military force . . . . The worst part was he slammed my head against the glass purposefully on the way out of McDonald’s and then sarcastically apologized for it.”1

Know Your Rights

Despite what some police officers or other officials may think, taking photos of the police in action is not illegal. In fact, anyone can snap a photo as long as the subject is plainly visible from a public space, although, certain designated Military and Energy installations are off-limits to photography because of national security concerns. Public spaces include federal buildings, transportation facilities, as well as people such as police or other government officials. (See this post for info on taking photos in private spaces) for As noted by the ACLU, being able to photograph incidents like these is not only a constitutional right but a form of public oversight over the government and is important in a free society.

If you can see it and you are on public property, then you can take a photo of it.

More importantly, police officers are also not allowed to confiscate your camera or even demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant. And they cannot delete your photographs for any reason. If they do, they may face felony charges. In a recent Nebraska case, Octavius Johnson questioned police as to why his family’s cars were being towed. Johnson found himself the victim of excessive force by the police and the subject of a warrantless search and seizure. Two of Johnson’s brothers filmed the incident but the police confiscated their cameras. Luckily, a man across the street filmed the entire incident leading to the arrest of the police officer (pictured below) for theft, misdemeanor obstruction and tampering with evidence.

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Know Your Rights

It’s very important to know your rights so you have the proper information to handle the situation appropriately. But very often, your understanding and that of the police as to the law will differ or the police may find other associated reason to bring you in. For example, the reporters arrested at McDonald’s, discussed earlier were not arrested for taking photos but for failing to provide identification.

After one of their reporters had a confrontation with police while photographing a murder scene, the Baltimore Sun stated, “there seems to be a misconception among some police officers and others in authority that they can stop not only the press but anyone taking pictures or recording police activity at a crime scene.”

That incident occurred this past March. The Sun’s photographer, Chris Assaf, was dispatched to a murder scene. While taking photos, a police officer shoved him away from the crime scene tape, where he had every right to be, while allowing the other people watching to remain. The officer began bullying Assaf, which another Sun photographer, Lloyd Fox, managed to photograph. The entire exchange can be seen in this sequence of photos.

Given the increasing frequency of police harassing photographers, don’t be surprised if it happens to you. The best course of action in any situation is to be polite as possible, despite how hard that may be. Know your rights too. PetaPixel makes a Photographer’s rights card for $10 that you can carry around which may help. Just don’t copy the card and make your own, that would be copyright infringement.

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About the author

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art and law. Should you have any questions on Intellectual Property contact him at [email protected] His photography can be seen online at Fotofilosophy.com or on display at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City.

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