Friday, April 18, 2008

Keep those cameras handy

Cops behaving badly have been caught on camera in sufficient numbers recently that it can be called a phenomenon. The Internet makes distribution of the resulting still photos and video a breeze, so that officials in range of surveillance cameras or even the tiny lenses on many cell phones can expect their worst conduct to be distributed far and wide. But police have retaliated as only they can, sometimes handcuffing anybody with the temerity to point cameras in their direction. That may be about to change.

Citing a 2003 criminal decision and the outcome of a resulting federal civil case, a Florida prosecutor has announced that no charges will be brought against a 20-year-old man who, while standing on a public road well away from official activity, photographed police vehicles parked outside a residence subject to a drug-related raid.

A person cannot be charged with obstruction or resisting arrest if the police detention is unlawful, an assistant state attorney, Tony Casoria, said in a memo released this week. Sievert did not physically interfere with the search warrant, the prosecutor said.

Casoria said Sievert "took a photograph in a public place, across the street from the home where law enforcement were conducting their search."


In 2003, a state judge in Pennsylvania overturned the harassment conviction of Allen E. Robinson, who had taped police during a traffic stop. Robinson said he was concerned about unsafe truck inspections and set up a video camera.

Robinson, a truck driver, sued the police, saying he was subjected to false arrest, excessive force and malicious prosecution. Robinson won in federal court in 2005.

"The activities of the police, like those of other public officials, are subject to public scrutiny," a federal judge wrote. "Robinson's right to free speech encompasses the right to receive information and ideas."

The police, the judge wrote, citing a case in Texas, do not have "unfettered discretion to arrest individuals for words or conduct that annoy or offend them."

That's good news for people using increasingly ubiquitous video technology to monitor the conduct of government arm-twisters, and bad news for officials seeking to keep their activities under wraps.

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