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Top 3 Legal Tips When Filming Criminals and Crime

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

In recent years, professional and amateur filmmakers alike have found much success in the "true crime" subgenre of reality TV, as well as just selling and profiting off crime footage. Whether it's capturing footage of a drug user using, a drug dealer dealing, a thief thieving, or the police policing, there are several important considerations for filmmakers.

Generally, a filmmaker will not be liable for filming a criminal admitting to a crime after the fact. Things can get murky however if a criminal begins talking about future crimes, or is being filmed during the actual commission of a crime.

Below, you'll find three essential legal tips for filming criminal acts in progress.

Get a Film Release

Generally, if you plan on profiting in any way, you should have any subjects sign a waiver and release for their image or likeness, just like other reality TV shows. Particularly in states like California, failing to get a release can result in both civil and even criminal liability, even if the filming happened in public. If you have the chance, try to get subjects to sign the release before filming begins.

If you are not able to get a release, such as when filming an unexpected crime occurring in front of you in public, you may want to consider blurring a person's face, and avoid including other identifying information. Providing the unedited footage to police is not a problem, however, selling footage without a proper release could result in legal backlash.

Don't Encourage or Participate in Criminal Activity

While a filmmaker may just be making a movie, if they participate in the criminal activity, it can result in criminal liability as an accomplice or worse. Depending on the crime, being charged as an accomplice can be nearly as serious as the underlying crime.

As a general rule of thumb, if you film yourself committing a crime and get arrested, law enforcement will likely be able to use the video as evidence against you. Additionally, if a filmmaker is aware of a violent crime that is going to occur in the future, there may be additional legal duties to report it in order to avoid accomplice liability.

Know State and Local Laws on Mandatory Crime Reporting

There is no duty for filmmakers to report past crime to police. However, in some states and local jurisdictions, serious crimes against minors must be reported by anyone with knowledge.

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