As a street photographer it is crucial you know your constitutional rights. In 2014 I won a Federal Civil Rights case against the Sebastian County Sheriff over a photograph I took of an officer on duty. This led to a change in polices and procedures ensuring photographers rights under the First Amendment in the State of Arkansas. In this blog post I will educate you on your rights as a photographer and how to deal with an officer if confronted. When I was assaulted and had my rights violated in 2013 it was before the “First Amendment Auditor” trend you see now. I want to make that clear. I did not set out looking for confrontation nor did I approach officers, I simply took a photograph.
The First Amendment protects your right as a photographer to take pictures in a public space of anyone or thing that can be seen from said public place including elected officials and officers of the law. The Fourth Amendment protects your property from being illegally search or seized. This includes images or video on said device. Law enforcement officers know this. They take an oath to uphold these rights. Sadly it doesn’t keep them from violating them. If confronted by an officer remain calm and respectful. Explain to them you have a First Amendment right to take photographs in public. If asked for identification you have the option to voluntarily provide ID or decline. You do not have to show the officer your identification. Be forewarned, if you decide to go the route of declining to show ID you’re going to piss the officer off and they might throw a “respect my authority” fit. At this point you may want to start recording the interaction. Make sure you tell the officer you are recording the interaction because you feel threatened and it is for both your protection and theirs. Again, clearly state your First Amendment right.
If they arrest you, remain calm and don’t fight back. They will say “Stop Resisting” while detaining you. This is a tactic used to charge you with resisting arrest. Even if they are rough, do not fight back. Remain calm, and state clearly, “I AM NOT RESISTING”. They will take your camera or cell phone. Remind them under the Fourth Amendment they do not have a right to illegally search or seize your property without a warrant and you do not give them permission to do so. Also state they do not have permission to look at or delete any images or video you have taken. Remain calm and respectful but sternly state you have done nothing wrong and ask why you are being detained. Interfering with governmental operations is another bullshit charge they like to throw around when they have nothing on you. Don’t worry, both charges will be dropped as was the case with me in 2013.
The goal however is to keep the situation from resulting in an arrest. When at all possible deescalate the situation and just move on. If you are arrested and your property taken into police custody remain calm and professional throughout the booking process and make sure all items taken from you are properly documented. The next step is to bail out and not sign anything without checking to see if your images or videos have been deleted or tampered with. If so, or you don’t get all your property back, make a note of it on the release papers and sign under duress. Once free contact an attorney immediately. The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Award Act of 1976 states if your civil rights have been violated the defendants are responsible for all legal fees. That’s right, suing them in federal court won’t cost you a dime. You’ve got to hit them where it hurts. They swore on oath to uphold your constitutional rights, both state and federal. Before my official complaint was filed in federal court I was followed, threatened, and harassed by the officer and other deputies of the Sebastian County Sheriff department. You might have to deal with such behavior. If so document all encounters and inform your attorney. Video and photos make good evidence.
I won my federal civil rights case and was awarded $40,000 dollars plus all legal fees paid. More importantly this led to a change in polices and procedures ensuring photographers rights under the First Amendment in the State of Arkansas. If this has happened to you feel free to contact me. I can and will help you. Your attorney can also use my case as a reference in your trial to ensure a victory.
Not all peace officers are bad. Odds are you will never find yourself in a situation like I did, but if you do, I hope my story will have prepared you.
Watch the exclusive 40/29 News coverage HERE.
Read the newspaper article HERE.