The lesson here is, if you’re going to arrest someone for the crime of filming you, you’d better make sure he’s not still filming you.
Justin Thomas, a 29-year-old grad student at New York’s School of Visual Arts, is suing the New York Police Department for arresting him, holding him for three hours in Brooklyn police station, confiscating his camera and giving him a ticket — all for the “crime” of filming on a public street, which isn’t even a crime.
Thomas was shooting some exteriors of a police station for a student project, a documentary about Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.
But when officer Viet Cato came outside the 72nd Precinct police station in Sunset Park and busted the aspiring documentary filmmaker, he didn’t seem to realize that Thomas’s camera was still rolling while he was taking the student into custody.
Thomas filed his suit Wednesday in Brooklyn Federal Court.
“I’m standing up for myself because I don’t think I should have been detained or arrested for this,” Thomas said yesterday. “But I’m also standing up [for] all of us as photographers and filmmakers. We have every right to film on a public street.”
The ticket Thomas ultimately received charged him with “obstructing government administration.” Police generally have claimed that allowing members of the public to film them would get in the way of their ability to carry out their duties.
Thomas wasn’t actually filming cops in action, or hadn't planned to, anyway. He was simply shooting the outside of a police station.
Thomas and Cato are shown in the photo above. Thomas’ video of the arrest is below.
A federal court earlier this year ruled that an Illinois law banning the filming of police in public violated the First Amendment.
Thomas’s lawyer, David Rankin, says that there is no such law in New York and in fact, the NYPD’s own guidebook for officers tells them not to interfere with filming or photography in public places.
Thomas acknowledged that police might have been extra-skittish that day because the Boston Marathon bombing had taken place just days earlier.