A federal appeals court has ruled that video recording law enforcement officers is protected under the First Amendment. The ruling provides legal precedent for future cases in filming the police, which had beforehand not been clearly established.
On Feb. 16, the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals gave a divided 2 to 3 ruling that video recording on-duty police officers was legally protected under the First Amendment, given specific conditions. The case had originated from an altercation between Texas-based Phillip Turner and two Fort Worth police officers in September 2015.
Turner was filming outside of the Forth Worth police department when he drew the attention of police officers Grinalds and Dyess. The two officers approached him and asked for identification. When Turner declined, he was temporarily handcuffed and detained, and they took his video camera taken away. He was later released and his camera returned; he promptly filed a civil-rights lawsuit asserting that they had violated both his First and Fourth Amendment rights.
Turner frequently video records police officers in order to test police officers' understanding of the right of citizens to film them. He picked up the activist practice after learning that there was not an established precedent to film law enforcement and made a series of videos, dubbing himself "The Battousai."
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"The quickest way to test their policy is to take a photo of the police department, of the building and police cars," Turner told the Star-Telegram. "There is nothing wrong with it, and the officers know there is nothing wrong with it. I'm not antagonizing. I'm not yelling and provoking them to come over."
In February 2016, a federal judge dismissed Turner's case, noting that the legality of filming police had not been firmly established.
One year later, the 5th Circuit has ruled that the practice is protected under the First Amendment. The panel upheld the original ruling that both Grinalds and Dyess were immune to prosecution because they were operating under the assumption that Turner's right to film on their department's premises had not been clearly established. The court did rule that filming police is a First Amendment right, but did not retroactively apply it to Turner's case.
"We conclude that First Amendment principles, controlling authority, and persuasive precedent demonstrate that a First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions," wrote Judge Jacques Wiener, according to Ars Technica.
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The court added that not only could video recording police capture law enforcement committing a wrong, but it can also provide evidence clearing police officers of wrongdoing.
Following the court ruling, Turner expressed satisfaction that his case had helped clarify whether or not filming police officers constituted a legal right.
"I can say that I'm very, very proud we were able to accomplish this," Turner said. "The news was like sweet music to my ears."
Bill Aleshire, a government transparency attorney, asserted that the ruling will help hold law enforcement more accountable in the future.
"What better way to have a base accountability on the truth than having a video recording?" Aleshire said. "With the cops wearing body cams and citizens doing their own recording, the evidence of what happened is right there to relive."
Body cameras have become an increasingly popular tool to use for police departments to help bolster public trust. Interim police chief Peter Newsham of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, whose department became fully outfitted with the technology in December 2016, noted that body cameras help satisfy public pressure for more accountability.
"You have people out there in our community that are asking for transparency. ... And that's the thing I think folks have to keep in mind, is that the community really wants this," Newsham told CBS News.