Photography Is Not A Crime again reports on police acting like they have the right to confiscate people’s cameras and phones in order to “secure” recordings of apparent police misconduct.

Police in Northern California beat and tased a mentally ill man before siccing a dog on him, then turning on citizens who recorded the incident, confiscating cell phones and in one case, ordering a witness to delete his footage.

But one video survived anyway, slightly longer than two minutes, where a cop from the Antioch Police Department can be heard saying he wants cameras confiscated right before the video stops.

The video is shot at a distance that makes it unclear as to how much damage is being done, although you can hear the meaty sound of someone being struck several times, as well as the nearly nonstop barking of the police dog and crackling bursts of Taser fire. Being filmed vertically doesn’t help, although I’m generally of the opinion that simply collecting footage that wouldn’t normally be captured is always useful and whatever makes the person filming most comfortable (seeing as it’s generally a very uncomfortable situation) is the method they should use. The recording also shows the arrival of more officers, as though the nearly invisible civilian at the bottom of the cop pile (which begins with 5 officers and a police dog) was on the verge of escaping the whole time.

Towards the end of a video, an officer pulls his squad car directly in front of the “scene” in an obvious attempt to limit the amount of onlookers with damning recordings. Shortly after that (and after the video ends), the cops started attempting to seize “evidence.”

A second witness ABC7 News spoke to says officers began confiscating cellphones from anyone who shot video of the incident. An officer asked for his cellphone after he shot video and the witness said, “Then he took my phone anyway because I didn’t want no problems. He emailed the incident to his phone.

The first witness said, “They didn’t take no for an answer apparently because they pulled one lady out of her vehicle to get it, and she wouldn’t give it up and they were about to arrest her and finally they let her go because I believe she gave it up.”

However, a third witness told ABC7 News he was ordered to erase his video. So he did. He said, “They were being kind of controlling, like demanding, ‘erase your phone’ and they were trying to take people’s phones away.”

No surprises here. Excessive force deployed, followed by a roundup of “witnesses,” which actually means recording equipment and not human beings. The police have no right to do this, but in far too many cases, they assume the public either doesn’t know this, or can easily be intimidated into complying with the unlawful request.

Here’s the absolute bullshit the police department handed over in defense of its ad hoc phone confiscation:

Antioch police told ABC7 News in a statement, “If a person is not willing to turn it over voluntarily, an officer can sometimes seize the device containing the video. The police would have to get a search warrant to retrieve the video from the device.”

As Carlos Miller points out, this is completely wrong and has been wrong for a few years now. Guidelines from the Department of Justice passed down in 2012 state the exact opposite. Police can ask for compliance, but they need to be extremely careful in how they ask.

A general order should provide officers with guidance on how to lawfully seek an individual’s consent to review photographs or recordings and the types of circumstances that do—and do not—provide exigent circumstances to seize recording devices, the permissible length of such a seizure, and the prohibition against warrantless searches once a device has been seized. Policies should include language to ensure that consent is not coerced, implicitly or explicitly…

[…]

Warrantless seizures are only permitted if an officer has probable cause to believe that the property “holds contraband or evidence of a crime” and “the exigencies of the circumstances demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present.”

Cops tend to claim that footage of police misconduct is “evidence” in order to justify warrantless cellphone seizures. It may very well be, but it’s the sort of evidence they want to hide, rather than the sort of evidence they’d like to retain. Note that the above officers ordered people to “delete” recordings, something they wouldn’t do if the recordings held actual evidence of a crime (or at least, a crime not committed by uniformed officers). Either way, crime or no crime, the police can’t just start seizing phones as “evidence.” The DOJ guidelines go on to say:

The Supreme Court has afforded heightened protection to recordings containing material protected by the First Amendment. An individual’s recording may contain both footage of a crime relevant to a police investigation and evidence of police misconduct.The latter falls squarely within the protection of First Amendment. See, e.g., Gentile v. State Bar of Nev., 501 U.S. 1030, 1034 (1991) (“There is no question that speech critical of the exercise of the State’s power lies at the very center of the First Amendment.”). The warrantless seizure of such material is a form of prior restraint, a long disfavored practice.

So, cops know — or should know — they can’t do this. And I firmly believe most of them know this. The problem is that they just don’t care. The quickest “fix” is swift seizures of recordings using baseless arrest threats and other forms of intimidation. It’s an instinctual closing of ranks. Once the requisite dozen or so officers needed to affect an arrest had been met, one of the officers originally in the one-sided melee stands back and says he wants “that cellphone and that cellphone.” Well, he can’t have them. Not legally. And yet, officers apparently got what they wanted — rather than what they could legally obtain — in the end.


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