Written by John W. Whitehead
Once again, the U.S. government is attempting to police the world when it should be policing its own law enforcement agencies. We’ve got a warship cruising the Black Sea, fighter jets patrolling the Baltic skies, and a guided-missile destroyer searching the South China Sea for the downed Malaysia Airlines flight. All the while, back home in the U.S., our constitutional rights are going to hell in a hand basket, with homeowners being threatened with eviction for attempting to live off the grid, old women jailed for feeding crows, and citizens armed with little more than a cell phone arrested for daring to record police activities.
Robin Speronis now finds herself threatened with eviction from her own Florida home for daring to live off the grid, independent of city utilities such as water and electricity. City officials insist the Cape Coral resident’s chosen way of life violates international property maintenance code and city ordinances. Mary Musselman, also a Florida resident, is being held in jail without bond for “feeding wild animals.” The 81-year-old Musselman, on probation after being charged with feeding bears near her home, was arrested after officers discovered her leaving bread out for crows. Meanwhile, Brandy Berning of Florida was forced to spend a night in jail after recording her conversation with an officer who pulled her over for a routine traffic stop.
Welcome to the farce that passes for law and order in America today, where, as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, crime is low, militarized police activity is on the rise, and Americans are being penalized for living off the grid, feeding wild animals, holding Bible studies in their back yard, growing vegetables in their front yard, collecting rainwater, and filming the police.
This latter point should really stick in your craw.
Consider the irony: the government insists it can carry out all manner of surveillance on us—listen in on our phone calls, read our emails and text messages, track our movements, photograph our license plates, even enter our biometric information into DNA databases—but if we dare to return the favor, even a little, we get roughed up by the police, arrested, charged with violating various and sundry crimes (often trumped up), and forced to make restitution.
For example, George Thompson of Boston was arrested after he used his cell phone to record a police officer he describes as being “out of control.” University of Texas college student Abie Kyle Ikhinmwi was arrested after recording a police speed trap with her cell phone. Kansas teen Addison Mikkelson was arrested after filming a patrol car allegedly speeding and failing to use a turn signal.
Leon Rosby was filming a police standoff in June 2013, his cellphone in one hand and his dog’s leash in the other, when three officers approached him. Anticipating a problem, Rosby placed his 2-year-old Rottweiler, Max, in his car. The LA Times reports: “As officers cuffed Rosby, the dog escaped through an open window and began to bark and lunge at officers. One officer tried to grab the dog’s leash, then drew his gun and fired four shots, killing Max. Video of the incident went viral on YouTube, prompting a public outcry and drawing protesters to the Police Department headquarters.” Rosby has now filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the three police officers.
And then there is the Baltimore man who was threatened by police after they discovered him filming them during an arrest. The local CBS station ran the footage of the ensuing confrontation, which went something like this:
“I’m allowed to do this,” the man told the officer.
“Get it out of my face,” the officer replied.
“I have my rights,” the man said.
“You have no rights,” the officer said.
But the man didn’t stop rolling and was once again aggressively approached.
“Do you see the police presence here? Do you see us all? We’re not [expletive] around. Do you understand? Do not disrespect us and do not not listen to us,” the officer said. “Now walk away and shut your [expletive] mouth or you’re going to jail, do you understand?”
After backing away, the officer came at the man a third time, appearing to grab him.
“I thought I had freedom of speech here,” the man said.
“You don’t. You just lost it,” the officer replied.
And that, in a nutshell, is what happens when law enforcement officials—not just the police, but every agent of the government entrusted with enforcing laws, from the president on down—are allowed to discard the law when convenient. At the point where there’s a double standard at play, where the only ones having to obey the law are the citizenry and not the enforcers, then that vital “social contract” that John Locke envisioned as the basis for society breaks down. The more we allow government officials to operate outside the law, the more we ensure that the law becomes only a tool to punish us, rather than binding and controlling the government, as it was intended.
This brings me back to the problem of Americans getting arrested for filming the police. Until recently, this has primarily been a problem experienced by journalists and photographers attempting to document political protests and other disturbances involving the police. However, with the preponderance of smart phones capable of recording audio and video, individuals who dare to record police engaged in questionable or abusive activities in public are increasingly finding themselves on the receiving end of the harsh treatment they intended to document. These videos, if widely distributed, can be a powerful method of subjecting police to closer scrutiny and holding them accountable to respecting the rights of those they are supposed to serve.
Naturally, police agencies and unions have sought out legal prohibitions on such videos from being created. Massachusetts police, for instance, have invoked a state surveillance law to charge citizen video-makers criminally for their actions. Because the state surveillance law requires “two-party” consent, most kinds of public filming can be construed as illegal. Similar laws exist in California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The law was enacted to protect private citizens from invasive surveillance, but the police have exploited it to curtail free speech that tarnishes their public image. Police claim that this regulation gives them legal justification to prohibit filming by citizens such as Jeffrey Manzelli, a journalist who recorded the police intimidating protesters at a rally and was arrested and charged under the law.
Saddled with costly lawsuits brought by individuals allegedly brutalized by police who didn’t appreciate their actions being filmed, a few cities across the country are attempting to adopt policies to protect citizens who film the police. In Troy, N.Y., for example, city police officers would face a fine and jail time if they stop people from legally photographing or filming them. If adopted, the Troy ordinance, which would carry a maximum $5,000 fine and a jail term of up to 15 days for an officer found guilty of violating it, would be the first of its kind in the country.
As part of a $200,000 legal settlement, Indianapolis police will soon be required to remind its officers that citizens have a legal right to videotape on-duty police officers. The case arose after a 66-year-old Indianapolis resident was tackled to the ground, arrested and charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and public intoxication (he was found not guilty of the charges) after he used his cellphone to record police arresting a young man in his neighbor’s driveway. There is also a movement afoot to equip police with on-officer cameras that would provide footage of what an officer sees.
The courts, thus far, have favored the First Amendment rights of eyewitness filmmakers, even in the face of state efforts to outlaw such activities. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of an Illinois eavesdropping law that makes recording law enforcement officers a first-class felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement of interest in the case of Mannie Garcia v. Montgomery County, Md., declaring that not only do individuals have a First Amendment right to record officers publicly doing their duties, they also have Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights protecting them from having those recordings seized without a warrant or due process.
The Garcia case involves a journalist who was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for filming police as they detained two men. According to the lawsuit, police “dragged Garcia to the police car, put him in handcuffs, threw him to the ground by kicking his feet out from under him, taunted him, threatened to arrest his wife if she came too close and took his camera, and seized the memory card, which was never returned.”
The problem, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recognized in Payne v. Pauley, is that “[p]olice officers must be more thick skinned than the ordinary citizen and must exercise restraint in dealing with the public” and “must not conceive that every threatening or insulting word, gesture, or motion amounts to disorderly conduct.”
The difficulty we face is that police officers are becoming increasingly thin skinned, less restrained in dealing with the public, and more inclined to conceive every word, gesture, or motion as a threat. In an ideal world, police would recognize that, as public servants, they are rightfully subject to recording and surveillance when carrying out their public duties. Unfortunately, this is far from an ideal world.
So what are we to do?
We must continue to stand up for our rights, record police when the opportunity presents itself, and politely remind any offended officers that they are, in fact, our public servants and, as such, their behavior is subject to public scrutiny. If they disagree and attempt to stop us from recording, we can refer them to the U.S. Constitution, which they have sworn to uphold, which protects our right to record matters of public interest. And if they continue to insist on hauling people to jail because they don’t like the idea of transparency and accountability, they can take it up with the courts. The goal is to eventually arrive at a point where we can keep a watchful eye on our government officials, instead of the other way around. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis once observed, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's concern for the persecuted and oppressed led him, in 1982, to establish The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization whose international headquarters are located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitehead serves as the Institute's president and spokesperson, in addition to writing a weekly commentary that is posted on The Rutherford Institute's website (www.rutherford.org), as well being distributed to several hundred newspapers, and hosting a national public service radio campaign. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties issues has earned him numerous accolades, including the Hungarian Medal of Freedom