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Journalist Arrested for Recording Police Gets $200K Settlement

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on June 23, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A New York photojournalist arrested for videotaping police has settled his case against the police department for $200,000. The department also promises to train its officers on First Amendment rights.

With the proliferation of cell-phone cameras and inexpensive digital video recorders has also come increased instances of both journalists and members of the public being arrested for recording the police. The U.S. Supreme Court tacitly affirmed the right of the public to record police activity in 2012 when it denied review of a lower-court case that struck down an Illinois law outlawing the practice.

What did police do wrong in this case, and what are your rights when it comes to recording the police?

'A Victory for the First Amendment'

Philip Datz, a freelance journalist, was filming the scene of a police chase on Long Island, New York, when the police told him to leave. He moved a block away and continued filming from a public area, and despite showing his press credentials when approached by police the second time, his camera was confiscated and he was arrested on charges of obstruction.

After Datz posted video of the incident online, the Suffolk County District Attorney dropped the charges against him. A subsequent internal investigation by Suffolk County Police found that the arresting officer had acted improperly. Datz brought a lawsuit in 2012 alleging civil rights abuses, including false arrest, which was settled last week.

"This settlement is a victory for the First Amendment and for the public good," Datz said in a statement posted to the National Press Photographers Association's website. "When police arrest journalists just for doing their job, it jeopardizes everyone's ability to stay informed about important news in their community."

Right to Record the Police

Videotaping police activity in a public area is generally within your rights under the First Amendment. Although some states require a person's consent before she can be filmed, most also agree that police officers on duty have no such right to privacy and numerous court decisions have affirmed the right of both journalists and the general public to record law enforcement.

When recording police, you may not be obligated to inform the officers that you're recording them, but it's probably best to do so anyway. It's also a good idea to remain calm, and to not interfere or otherwise obstruct police business. As shown by the settlement in this case -- which included officer training on the public's First Amendment rights -- the police may not necessarily be aware of your right to record them.

To learn more about this issue, check out our blog post from earlier this year on when and where it's legal to record police.

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