By Rachael Mason
Is it legal to photograph the police?
Whether it’s a smartphone or a pocket-sized digital camera, hardly any event or situation escapes being photographed now. Regular folks can play citizen journalists and capture newsworthy events to share on social networking sites, news websites, TV stations, and newspapers.
But is taking a picture of the police legal? If you ask a cop, you’ll likely be told that photography is not allowed. In fact, officers may try to detain you if you’re spotted taking pictures of them.
However, most types of photography are considered free speech and are protected by the First Amendment.
Why is it legal to photograph the police?
“Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right – and that includes the outside of federal buildings, as well as transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties,” says the American Civil Liberties Union.
If you’re taking pictures in a public place – and you’re there legally – you can take pictures of anything in plain view. On private property, keep in mind that the property owner determines rules regarding photography. If you’re violating those rules, you may be asked to leave and can be arrested for trespassing if you don’t comply.
Even if you are on public property and you seem to be in the clear, the police on the scene might have a different perspective. In the news, you’ll often see stories about conflicts between citizen photographers and the police.
I’ve heard of people getting arrested for photographing cops. Why does that happen?
People have been arrested or had their cameras confiscated for snapping pictures of cops.
Just this month, officers took a camera from a woman in Battleboro, Vt., after she took pictures of the police enforcing a search warrant across the street, reported the Brattleboro Reformer.
According to the ACLU, the police had no right to do so, because the woman was taking pictures on a public street. Her camera was eventually returned, but the ACLU says it shouldn’t have been taken in the first place. She was accused of obstructing justice and interfering with the police work.
If you plan to take pictures of the police in public areas, be prepared to defend your rights.
“That police use ambiguous terms such as ‘obstruction of justice’ does not magically trump First Amendment protections,” says attorney Martin Sweet of the legal information website THELAW.TV. “Police officers usually can’t confiscate or demand to view your photos or video without a warrant. And officers should never delete your images or video.”
When can the police tell me not to take a picture?
However, if you are interfering with legitimate law enforcement activities and police ask you to stop, you must comply with their requests. And remember that the right to take pictures doesn’t give you permission to break other laws, so you can still be charged with trespassing on private property or other offenses.
What should I do if the police tell me to stop taking pictures?
If you are stopped while taking pictures, remain police and don’t resist the officer. Doing so could result in arrest.
Ask if you are free to go – until you ask to leave, being stopped is considered voluntary. If you are detained, ask what crime you are being accused of and remind the officers that you have a First Amendment right to take photographs.
“We all want to live in a place where the police enforce the rules of the game fairly. But sometimes that ideal is not attained – and having evidence of that misconduct from a photo can be crucial to understanding what occurred,” says Sweet.