It is not a crime for Californians to use their smartphones to record police activity in a public place, as long as they do not “deter or prevent” officers from performing their duties.
Maybe the deputy U.S. marshal who grabbed the smartphone out of Beatriz Paez’s hand and smashed it to the ground was unaware of that fact. Or, given that he was participating in a police raid in her South Gate neighborhood, maybe he was afraid of ending up in a viral YouTube video like so many that have recently put police conduct under a national microscope. (If that was the case, then, ironically, he only ensured his notoriety, because another citizen recorded him smashing the phone.)
For sure, though, the marshal was following a long tradition of loosely interpreting the state law that makes it a crime to prevent officers from doing their jobs. In just one high-profile example, Hawthorne police in 2013 arrested Leon Rosby and shot his dog after he failed to stop recording a SWAT standoff on his cellphone. Jurors last month deadlocked on the charge that he had interfered.
State law ought to make clear that it is illegal for an officer to confiscate a camera or phone — and certainly to destroy it — or to arrest people simply for recording police action in public places. That’s the point of Senate Bill 411 by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), which is now headed to the Assembly. If it passes, and it should, it could stand as a model for other states, particularly those that are moving in the opposite direction.
That includes Illinois, where Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill in December that makes it illegal to surreptitiously record “private conversations” between two people, similar to eavesdropping laws in a handful of other states that cloud the issue of when a citizen may lawfully record police. An even worse proposal pushed by police unions in Texas would have required people recording police activity to stay 25 feet away. That bill was quietly dropped by its author this month.
It’s absurd to scale back the rights of citizens to record in public places even as law enforcement agencies move toward requiring officers to wear body cameras. Support for body cameras has been driven in large part by the shocking citizen videos that have captured questionable and possibly criminal uses of deadly force by police around the country.
Imagine if a bystander hadn’t aimed his smartphone camera at a traffic stop in North Charleston, N.C., this month. The death of Walter Scott might well have gone down as just another justifiable officer-involved shooting. And if Eric Garner’s last minutes of life after being put into chokehold by a New York police officer hadn’t been memorialized on video, we might not be having this uncomfortable but healthy national debate on race and policing.