Recording police officers on the street and during routine traffic stops is expressly permitted under the First Amendment.
But cops everywhere don’t always seem to know that, and will arrest people for merely exercising their right to record police encounters. Two recent incidents in New York City and Broward County, Florida underscore this sad fact.
Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy William O’Brien became irate recently after learning that the woman he stopped on the highway was using her cell phone to make an audio recording of the encounter. He insisted–wrongly–that the woman was committing a felony, and ordered her to hand over her phone. The woman, Brandy Burning, refused, prompting O’Brien to climb inside the car and struggle with her.
Burning ended up with a sprained wrist, bruised cheek and an overnight stay in jail. She was charged with resisting arrest.
The audio recording was eventually released to ABC Local 10 news.
According to the recording, O’Brien cited his own superior knowledge of the law to try to get Burning to hand over her phone.
“I know the law better than you, believe me,” he said.
All charges against Burning have been dropped, and she is suing the police department.
The Washington Post’s Radley Balko counted five different ways in which O’Brien had violated Burning’s rights.
“He’s flat wrong about the law,” wrote Balko. “I’m not a prosecutor, but it seems to me that the recorded encounter makes a strong case that O’Brien should no longer be a deputy and probably should be facing his own criminal charges.”
During a similarly frightening recent police encounter, Shawn Randall Thomas attempted to record two NYPD officers at a New York City subway station while standing about 30 feet away from them. After noticing Thomas’s activities, one of the officers–Officer Rojas–confronted him, getting right in his face and obstructing his view of the other officer.
Rojas then told Thomas that he was violating the officer’s personal space.
Eventually, the officer simply stole the batteries out of Thomas’s camera. When Thomas attempted to continue recording the encounter anyway, Rojas knocked him onto the ground and bashed his head against the pavement, according to Thomas’s account of the incident.
Thomas was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and obstructing the government.
Lucky for him, his recording of the incident survived, and other pedestrians continued recording what happened after Thomas’ camera and cell phone were disabled.
Rojas works out of NYPD Transit District 32. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.