LEGAL GUIDE
Written by attorney Matthew John Speredelozzi | Feb 12, 2018

Can Citizens Record Police Officers?

Yes. As a general rule, citizens can photograph, video, or even audio record police officers in a public place as long as they do not interfere with the officer in their official duties.

This law was officially codified and signed by Governor Jerry Brown as Senate Bill 411 on August 11, 2015.

SB 411 clarifies individuals’ First Amendment right to record police officers by stating that a civilian recording while an officer is in a public place, or the person recording is in a place he or she has the right to be, is not violating the law. Additionally, it makes clear that recording does not constitute reasonable suspicion to detain a person or probable cause to arrest (Penal Code § 148.) This bill also protects police by ensuring that these provisions do not allow a civilian to obstruct an officer.

SB 411 does not create new law. SB 411 merely restates via California Statute a right that is protected by the United States Constitution. Multiple Federal case precedents make it clear that recording a police officer in a public place is protected by the First Amendment, including a ruling last July in Fields v. Philadelphia. Judge Thomas Ambro stated, “Bystander videos provide different perspectives than police and dashboard cameras, portraying circumstances and surroundings that police videos often do not capture,” he continued. “Civilian video also fills the gaps created when police choose not to record video or withhold their footage from the public.”

The one caveat is that citizens are not allowed to resist, delay or obstruct a police officer when discharging their official duties. Such conduct is a violation of Penal Code § 148. If you decide to document police conduct in public (or in a place you have a right to be), do not interfere with the officer. If you think the officer is doing something illegal or wrong, you can document it, but you cannot take any actions that delay or obstruct them in their official duties.

Even though you have the right to record police officers under the conditions specified above, there have been many cases of law enforcement obstructing, or attempting to obstruct, a citizen’s right to record. One such example is the case of Jesse Bright, a criminal defense attorney in North Carolina. Mr. Bright was acting as an Uber driver and had been pulled over when he began filming his encounter with police, who told him “Be careful because there is a new law… Turn it off or I’ll take you to jail.”

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