Arizona Senator Proposes Bill to Make Recording Police a Crime

A new Arizona bill introduced by Senator John Kavanagh will make recording a police officer a criminal act if passed.

The bill, SB 1054, which Senator Kavanagh says he proposed as a measure to ensure the safety of police officers and those videotaping, would prohibit video recording police officers from a distance of 20 feet or less.

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union have attacked the bill as unconstitutional, citing that it violates the First Amendment. Professor Paul Bender, the dean emeritus of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University was quoted in an article in the Guardian as saying the bill was “on the face of it unconstitutional” and problematic.

The bill supports a person’s right to videotape a police officer outside 20 feet and within that distance on private property, or in their own residence if the person records from an adjacent room.

However, the bill would also give police officers the right to end any video recording, regardless of distance, if the police officer deemed the recording an interference in law enforcement activity.

“The language in bill SB 1054 that’s most concerning for law analysts is the section that gives law enforcement officers the right to supercede the previous sections securing a citizen’s right to film law enforcement from more than 20 feet,” said Chris Corso of Corso Law Group.

“This bill would allow any police officer the right to stop citizens from recording arrests, no matter the circumstances,” said Corso, “and would subject those who refused to stop recording to legal prosecution.”

Under protection of the First Amendment, Americans have the right to film police officers while they are on duty. This right has been pivotal in recent, high-profile court cases that have been successfully defended based on video evidence taken at the scene and involving police officer misconduct.  

One such high-profile case involved the shooting of Walter Scott, a South Carolina man who was shot in the back by Officer Michael Slager as he ran away. Video coverage captured by a witness was used to strengthen the case.

In America, the right to film police has already been established and includes specific regulations. For example, although the right to photograph police is protected by the First Amendment, officials do have the power to stop anyone from filming who they believe is legitimately interfering with law enforcement, according to the ACLU.

“Photography is a form of power, and people are loath to give up power, including police officers,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, said in The Atlantic. “It’s a power struggle where the citizen is protected by the law but, because it is a power struggle, sometimes that’s not enough.”

Although police may tell people to stop recording and ask that they turn over their footage, a guide for photographers by the ACLU, Know Your Rights, says it’s illegal for police to confiscate photos or videos without a warrant.

The First Amendment protects a citizen’s right to take pictures of anything in plain view in public space, including police officers.

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