Wick Communications

Can cops take my camera?

In Crime on 25 Jul 2013 at 11:12 am

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We’ve talked about this sort of thing before, but it bears asking again: If a cop orders you to turn over your recorder, camera or notes, do you have to do it?

Good question – and one without a simple answer, apparently.

I ask because of what happened to Detroit Free Press photographer Mandi Wright the other day. She and another staffer happened upon an arrest and she started filming what appeared, by the time she got there, to be a pretty garden-variety police action. You can see her video here.

At some point, a police officer asked her to stop, one thing led to another and he ended up taking her phone and she was arrested for obstructing an officer. (There is a lot of dispute about much of it. Cops say she jumped on the back of the officer at one point. She says she was made to give her name and address in front of the original suspect, who was considered a dangerous felon at that point.)

My standard response to any confrontation with a cop at a scene is that you generally get farther with honey than you would by yelling and screaming about your constitutional rights. You should definitely obey a lawful request.

But is this request lawful? And what should you do if it’s not? …

This turns out to be a fairly complicated bit of constitutional law. In general, you are allowed to take photos or video of anything you see from a public place. Cops may legally take your camera phone or camera if you have been arrested under the long-held “search incident to arrest” doctrine. Whether they can search its contents is another matter. They may also confiscate your camera if they have reason to believe you have evidence of a crime and may destroy it before they can procure a warrant.

Some states are trying hard to loosen the rules for police, including New Jersey, which is seeking to give officers the right to confiscate cell phones when there has been a car accident to see whether the driver has been texting and so forth.

As a practical matter, however, reciting your Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure to a beat cop who has just chased down a dangerous suspect is probably not going to get the response you want. In most instances, I would recommend briefly stating your objection and asking to speak with a supervisor on scene. If that fails, politely ask for the officer’s name and badge number and immediately call your supervisor, who should then take it up with the chief right away. It may be that lawyers have to get involved.

Police work is hard, almost as hard as journalism. Cops are people and they make mistakes. Be reasonable. Be honest. And for heaven’s sake, don’t jump on the back of an arresting officer.




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