A series of tragic events within recent months have caused a flurry of videos showing police activity to appear across the internet. But in certain situations, taking video footage of police officers can be illegal.

Police departments across the nation are under a microscope, but not just by authorities and the Department of Justice. Smartphones create an opportunity for individuals to record anyone at any time, including police officers. As long as the process of recording does not interfere with an officer’s duties, and the video is taken in a public area, then under the First Amendment, it is legal to record the actions of police officers on duty.

The Right to Record

Under the First Amendment, individuals have the right to freedom of the press, public access to information, and the right to freely discuss government. Technological advancements have created the ability for members of the public to capture news and spread it publicly at a rate that is faster than ever imagined. Because of this, legal authorities have established that the right to freedom of press extends to citizens acting in a manner consistent with journalists, just as it does to recognized and official members of the press.

Limitations on Recording

While the courts cannot prohibit the act of recording police activity, they can place limitations on such recordings as necessary to protect the safety of the officers. Such limitations pertain to the manner in which recordings are taken, the time at which they can be taken, and where it is permissible to take recordings.

Although the First Amendment establishes rights that make it allowable to record police activity, the exception to this is when doing so interferes with the officers’ ability to do their job. Officers may legally require individuals to stop recording if the act of doing so interferes with the safety of others or with the officers’ ability to enforce the law.

Certain states have enacted laws pertaining to surveillance that are in place to protect the privacy rights of citizens. However these laws would also prohibit a citizen from recording an officer—through audio or visual means—without their knowledge. In situations where officers have been recorded secretively, the officer has a right to privacy which takes precedent over the individual’s First Amendment rights. Therefore, if an individual wants to record an officer, they are required to do so in an obvious way.

Further, harassment, stalking, and trespassing laws can create further problems when recording a police officer. Just as one individual cannot record another in a way that is deemed to be harassment, it is also illegal to harass or stalk a police officer on duty in attempt to record their actions. If an officer has the grounds to arrest an individual on the basis that they are stalking or harassing them while taking a video or audio recording—and is not doing in an attempt to violate First Amendment rights—then the arrest could be deemed legitimate because that individual was breaking the law.

ENLawyers Bottom Line

States have different laws pertaining to when is it permissible to record police officers conducting activities within the constructs of their duty. In Maryland, the Court of Appeals has made it clear that you may record a police officer in a public area so long as it does not interfere with his or her duties.  Keep in mind that maintaining a safe distance from any police encounter is always going to be important.  If you are planning to take, or have taken video or audio recordings of officers, and it has led to or may lead to legal problems, you should consult with one of the experienced attorneys at the Law Offices of Eldridge and Nachtman. For any Baltimore criminal legal issues, don’t forget to contact ENLawyers by phone at 443.559.4384 or via email at info@enlawyers.com.