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Is It Legal to Videotape, Record Police?

Group of friends in the street with smartphone
By Andrew Leonatti on February 28, 2020 12:08 PM

As much as police would like to fight it, there is no longer any way to contain people recording them in public. Smartphones are everywhere. It may be possible to talk one person out of doing it, but if a crowd forms, there's no way to stop it.

But the law still has not caught up in many places. So while most state laws don't explicitly say whether it's legal to videotape police, courts around the country have agreed that it's legal under the First Amendment — even during protests or during traffic stops.

Like most legal rules of thumb, however, there are some limits to when you may videotape police.

Are You in a Public or Private Space?

Public Space: In general, you are allowed to record on-duty police in public when you're legally authorized to be there, the police activity is in plain view, and you're openly (not secretly) recording them.

But even in public spaces, police officers may legally order you to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations, which may include your recording them. However, such operations are subject to public scrutiny, including by citizens videotaping them, according to the ACLU.

Private Space: Your right to videotape police is much more limited on private property because you are subject to the whims of the private property owner's rules. If the owner does not want you to record the police, he or she can order you off the property and even have you arrested for trespassing if you don't comply.

Legal Tips for Recording

When videotaping police, take the following steps to ensure you're in the clear legally:

  • Tell police you are recording them
  • Comply with their requests to step back or identify yourself
  • Keep your camera out of the way (low and close to your body, and don't point it like a gun)
  • Calmly remind the police of your right to film them, if needed

If a police officer orders you to stop filming - either out of ignorance or to intimidate you - and you don't, you should prepare to be arrested. Stay calm, and remember your rights.

When Can Police Search Your Footage?

When it comes to your actual footage, police generally cannot confiscate or demand to view your video without a warrant. In addition, officers cannot delete your video under any circumstances.

For example, police do not have the authority to search your cellphone or order you to unlock it for them without a warrant. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that is akin to giving up your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

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