SACRAMENTO (CN) - With news coverage and public scrutiny at an all-time high due to a barrage of officer-involved shootings and killings around the country, several states are scrambling to define the legality of filming police officers in public places.
In the last month, Colorado and California lawmakers have introduced bills protecting citizens who film police officers in public from harassment or confiscation of their devices by police without a warrant. Many high-profile police situations have recently been filmed, and in some cases journalists and individuals were arrested or had their cellphones confiscated by the police officers they were filming.
In California, Senate Bill 411 would amend the state's penal code to say that simply filming or taking a photograph of an officer performing his duty in a public place does not automatically amount to interference.
"Recent events throughout the country and here in California have raised questions about when an individual can - and can't - record," said California State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens. "SB 411 will help erase ambiguity, enhance transparency and ensure that freedom of speech is protected for both civilians and police officers."
Lara introduced the bill in February. Supporters say it protects the First Amendment and clarifies that filming alone does not give police officers probable cause to search or confiscate an individual's property.
The bill actually benefits citizens and police officers as well as saves money, according to Larry Doyle, legislative representative for the Conference of California Bar Associations.
"Recordings of law enforcement activity benefit victims and innocent police officers by creating clear evidentiary accounts of what took place," Doyle said in a statement. "SB 411 also will result in fewer lawsuits and fewer payouts of taxpayer money because of both the evidence it will provide and the responsibility it will inspire."
Colorado's bill would compensate individuals who are wrongfully detained or have their property confiscated by police. If a police officer intimidates or illegally confiscates a camera or cellphone, the individual will be entitled to $15,000 in civil fees.
But a lawmaker in Texas has taken the opposite approach to police filming, by introducing a bill that would make it illegal for individuals not affiliated with the media to film police officers. Citizens would not be allowed to film within 25 feet of a police officer and armed citizens are prohibited from filming within 100 feet.
Whether or not the Texas House of Representatives approves HB 2918 remains to be seen, and it's likely it would not hold up under judicial scrutiny. In 2011, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Boston police officers violated a man's civil rights when they arrested him and charged him with illegal wiretapping for filming them.
Texas State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, says the bill he introduced simply asks people to keep from interfering with police officers.
"HB 2918 is meant to protect officers, NOT restrict the ability to keep them accountable. It DOES NOT prohibit filming," Villalba tweeted. [Emphasis in tweet.]
Lara's bill heads to the Senate's public safety committee on April 7, with the support of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
"The California Attorneys for Criminal Justice is committed to protecting the public's rights when they are legally recording the actions of law enforcement," said the group's policy director Ignacio Hernandez. "Preservation of this right is a key strategy of accountability and no one should fear prosecution for exercising this right."
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