Progress on the Police-Filming Front

LTB logo

Two or three pieces of good news here. First, the Texas bill that would have made it illegal for you to film a cop beating you (see Texas Bill Would Make It Illegal for You to Film a Cop Beating You” (Mar. 26)) seems to have been withdrawn by its sponsor, the probably-well-meaning-but-not-too-thoughtful Rep. Jason Villalba. The legislature’s site just says “no action taken in committee” on HB 2918 (the bill was scheduled for a hearing on March 26), but there are reports that Villalba decided to drop it completely after the state’s largest union of police officers said it would oppose the bill.

Villalba reportedly insisted that he had only withdrawn the bill temporarily because “it’s being amended and the hearing [was going to] run very late,” but some (specifically, me) are suggesting that in fact he pulled it because pretty much everybody hates it.

Turns out there was already a competing proposal in Texas, HB 1035, which would not only state that recording officers is legal, it would make it illegal for law enforcement to alter, destroy, or conceal a recording of police operations without the owner’s written consent. I don’t know what that bill’s chances are, but would guess they are approximately infinitely better than those of HB 2918.

Second, lawmakers in both California and Colorado have also introduced bills aimed at protecting the right to film public servants in public.

California’s SB 411, sponsored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, would amend two anti-police-obstruction laws to state that, as long as an officer is in a public place or you are somewhere you have a right to be, taking a picture or making an audio or video recording of said officer “does not constitute, in and of itself, a violation” of those laws. Nor is it probable cause for an arrest on actual obstruction charges, or even reasonable suspicion for a brief detention.

Weirdly, on their face(s) the existing laws seem to punish attempted obstruction more severely than actual obstruction, which seems like a bad idea. That’s one area where you don’t want to encourage people to finish what they started. Anyway, you shouldn’t do either, but the bill would make it clear that a mere recording is not a violation of either law. The first hearing on that bill is set for April 7.

Colorado HB 15-1290, introduced on March 19, is aimed at the same problem but would address it by giving the photographer a right to sue the law-enforcement agency for the violation, and would establish a civil penalty of $15,000 (plus actual damages). It would also make it illegal for an officer to seize or destroy a lawful recording without either permission or a warrant.

These laws shouldn’t be necessary, but unfortunately they are. Taking pictures in public isn’t obstruction. Obstruction is obstruction. Also, just a suggestion—if you tell me I can’t film you in public, no matter what, filming you in public is going to move way up my priority list. Because what you’re telling me is, “I’m about to do something ridiculous, illegal, or ridiculously illegal. So don’t look.” I’m not only looking, I’m deleting all my other videos right now so I have room to get all of whatever you are about to do. So that’s how that works.