Is It Legal to Record a Police Officer?

by Gwen Case
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Unfortunately, encounters with police are sometimes frightening. Many people have seen video footage or heard stories about police treating someone unfairly or even becoming violent. Video footage has helped people seek justice when police use excessive force or wrongly accuse someone of a crime.

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Whether the police are contacting you or you're witnessing a police encounter as a bystander, you may have questions about when you can record police. In most cases, you do have a right to record interactions with police.

What Are the Laws About Recording Police?

Courts in the United States have generally held that members of the public are allowed to record the police and that the right to record police is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Among other rights, the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press, and you don't have to be a professional journalist to enjoy these rights and protections. However, your right to record police isn't absolute and is subject to some limitations discussed below.

Are You Allowed to Record Police in Public?

Police encounters often happen in public settings. If you're on a crowded city street and witness a police officer questioning someone, you're generally allowed to record the encounter.

You can also film traffic stops and encounters you witness in other public places, as long as you aren't interfering or creating a public safety hazard. Recording at protests and in parks is almost always legally protected.

There are limitations on filming in some sensitive locations such as courtrooms, hospitals and jails. These locations often limit filming regardless of police activity to maintain order and protect privacy.

Can You Film Police in a Private Location?

Filming police in private locations may be subject to more limitations. You can't enter a private residence or restricted area without permission in order to film police. Recording may be limited to protect the privacy of others in homes or restrooms.

However, there are many circumstances when filming is permitted, even in private areas. For example, you may be entitled to film police questioning your spouse in your front yard or living room.

 

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Exceptions to the Right to Record Police

The right to record law enforcement helps hold police accountable, but it isn't absolute. Police do dangerous and important work, and you aren't allowed to create hazardous situations through filming. Understanding your rights and the exceptions to those rights can help you take action while protecting yourself.

Interfering With Police Business or Endangering Others

If your filming activities interfere with an officer's ability to speak with a suspect or make an arrest, you could be in trouble. You should also be careful and remember that reaching for a phone or camera could be mistaken for reaching for a weapon.

You also can't record in a way that would endanger others. For example, you can't block a road or cause danger for drivers while recording a traffic stop.

You can avoid trouble when recording police by maintaining a reasonable distance from the activity and staying out of the way.

You're the Subject of an Investigation

Your right to record may be limited if the police are attempting to question or arrest you.

Limits on Equipment

Most people aren't planning on needing to record police and simply film with a cell phone. However, if you're attending a protest or event, you may be expecting police encounters. Some states prohibit recording police with drones or night vision, so check local laws before using special equipment.

Harassment

Recording police in a way that could be considered harassment may not be protected. For example, filming an off-duty officer or following an officer throughout the day may not be protected.

Secret Recordings

Some states have laws against secretly recording anyone, including police. While you may not need an officer's consent to record, you could run into trouble if you make a secret audio or video recording.

Filming Laws Can Be Complex

Laws vary by state. Some states have laws that apply to recording people in public regardless of police activity, and you may need to be aware of these.

While recording police is generally protected, your rights can depend on the facts of a particular situation. This area of the law can be complicated. If you have a film of a police incident that you think may have public or legal value, you may wish to speak with a knowledgeable lawyer. Legal advice can help protect you and help your recording have the desired impact.

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