Appeals Court Says Filming The Police Is Protected By The First Amendment

In news that will surprise no one, police officers decided they must do something about someone filming the police department building from across the street. That’s where this Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision begins: with a completely avoidable and completely unnecessary assertion of government power.

Phillip Turner was filming the police department. He was accosted by two officers (Grinalds and Dyess). Both demanded he provide them with identification. He refused to do so. The officers arrested him for “failure to identify,” took his camera, and tossed him in the back of a squad car. Given the circumstances of the initial interaction, it’s surprising the words “contempt of cop” weren’t used on the official police report. From the opinion [PDF]:

Grinalds asked Turner, “How’s it going, man? Got your ID with you?” Turner continued videotaping, and Grinalds repeatedly asked Turner if he had any identification. Turner asked the officers whether he was being detained, and Grinalds responded that Turner was being detained for investigation and that the officers were concerned about who was walking around with a video camera. Turner asked for which crime he was being detained, and Grinalds replied, “I didn’t say you committed a crime.” Grinalds elaborated, “We have the right and authority to know who’s walking around our facilities.”

Grinalds again asked for Turner’s identification, and Turner asked Grinalds, “What happens if I don’t ID myself?” Grinalds replied, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Grinalds continued to request Turner’s identification, which Turner refused to provide. Grinalds and Dyess then “suddenly and without warning” handcuffed Turner and took his video camera from him, and Grinalds said, “This is what happens when you don’t ID yourself.”

Turner asked to speak to their supervisor. Given that this happened right across the street from the department, Turner didn’t have to wait very long. A supervisor arrived and came to at least one correct conclusion:

Lieutenant Driver identified himself as the commander. Driver asked Turner what he was doing, and Turner explained that he was taking pictures from the sidewalk across the street. Driver asked Turner for his ID, and Turner told the lieutenant that he did not have to identify himself because he had not been lawfully arrested and that he chose not to provide his identification. Driver responded, “You’re right.”

Texas police officers love to misread the state’s “failure to identify” statute. It doesn’t say what they think it does… or what they want to believe it does. A former cop-turned-law student has a full explanation here, but suffice to say, cops cannot arrest someone for refusing to ID themselves — at least not in Texas. The charge can be added after an arrest (if the refusal continues), but it can’t be the impetus for an arrest.

After some discussion between the officers, Turner was released and his camera was given back. Turner filed a civil rights lawsuit. The lower court granted immunity to the officers on all allegations. The Fifth Circuit, however, refuses to go as far. And in doing so, it actually takes it upon itself to address an issue it easily could have avoided: whether the First Amendment covers the filming of public servants, specifically law enforcement officers.

First, the court asks whether the right to film police was “clearly established” at the time the incident took place (September 2015). It can’t find anything that says it is.

At the time in question, neither the Supreme Court nor this court had determined whether First Amendment protection extends to the recording or filming of police. Although Turner insists, as some district courts in this circuit have concluded, that First Amendment protection extends to the video recording of police activity in light of general First Amendment principles, the Supreme Court has “repeatedly” instructed courts “not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality”: “The general proposition, for example, that an unreasonable search or seizure violates the Fourth Amendment is of little help in determining whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established.” Thus, Turner’s reliance on decisions that “clarified that [First Amendment] protections . . . extend[] to gathering information” does not demonstrate whether the specific act at issue here—video recording the police or a police station—was clearly established.

The court doesn’t leave it there, although it could have. The court notes that there’s a circuit split on the issue, but just because the issue’s far from decided doesn’t mean courts have not recognized the right exists. It points to conclusions reached by the First and Eleventh Circuit Appeals Courts as evidence the right to film police has been acknowledged. Even so, there’s not enough clarity on the issue to remove the officers’ immunity.

We cannot say, however, that “existing precedent . . . placed the . . .constitutional question beyond debate” when Turner recorded the police station. Neither does it seem that the law “so clearly and unambiguously prohibited [the officers’] conduct that ‘every reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates [the law].’” In light of the absence of controlling authority and the dearth of even persuasive authority, there was no clearly established First Amendment right to record the police at the time of Turner’s activities.

This is where the opinion gets interesting. While many judges would leave a trickier, somewhat tangential issue open and unanswered, the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court decides it’s time for it to set some precedent.

We conclude that First Amendment principles, controlling authority, and persuasive precedent demonstrate that a First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.

[…]

To be sure, “[s]peech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people. The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it.” Filming the police contributes to the public’s ability to hold the police accountable, ensure that police officers are not abusing their power, and make informed decisions about police policy. Filming the police also frequently helps officers; for example, a citizen’s recording might corroborate a probable cause finding or might even exonerate an officer charged with wrongdoing.

In the Fifth Circuit — joining the First and Eleventh Circuits — the First Amendment right to film police has been asserted. Unfortunately, the issue still remains mostly unsettled, and there’s currently nothing in front of the Supreme Court that would set national precedent. Unfortunately, the decision doesn’t help Turner with his First Amendment claim, but it will help others going forward.

The court also reverses immunity on one of Turner’s Fourth Amendment claims. While it finds the officers were justified in questioning him, they went too far when they arrested him. First, as pointed out above, the “failure to identify” law can’t be used to predicate an arrest. And, after questioning him, the officers still had nothing approaching the probable cause they needed to make a warrantless arrest. Even though Turner was detained in the back of the squad car for only a short period of time, the fact that he was obviously not free to go makes it an arrest under the Fourth Amendment.

Strangely, the dissent, written by Judge Edith Brown, claims the Appeals Court has no business setting precedent. In her opinion, the nation’s second-highest courts should stand idly by and wait for the Supreme Court to do the work.

The majority asserts, unconnected to the particular facts and unnecessary to the disposition of this case, that “a First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.” The majority derives this general right to film the police from “First Amendment principles, controlling authority, and persuasive precedent.” But the Supreme Court has repeatedly reversed attempts to define “clearly established law” at such “a high level of generality.” White, 137 S. Ct. at 552.

The judge narrowly defines Turner’s filming to ensure it would never fall under this supposedly “broad” definition of the right. She says the Appeals Court defines the protection as covering “filming police.” But Turner wasn’t doing that.

To the extent there is any consensus of persuasive authority, those cases focus only on the narrow issue of whether there is a First Amendment right to film the police “carrying out their duties in public.” E.g., Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 82 (1st Cir. 2011). Turner did not allege that he filmed police officers conducting their public duties, but rather that he filmed a police station.

Somehow, filming police officers as they enter and exit a public building is not “filming police carrying out their duties in public.” Remarkably, Judge Brown says there may be “reasonable” security concerns that could Constitutionally prevent Turner’s actions.

The majority does not determine that the officers here violated Turner’s First Amendment rights—perhaps because it would be reasonable for security reasons to restrict individuals from filming police officers entering and leaving a police station.

If police officers are entering and exiting a building from doors clearly viewable by the public from a public area, the officers obviously aren’t that concerned about their “security.” If so, they would use an entrance/exit members of the public can’t see or don’t have access to. If the Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect the privacy of citizens in public areas, the same public areas can’t be given a heightened privacy protection that only covers public servants.

Unsurprisingly, Judge Brown thinks Turner’s involuntary stay in the back of a squad car could reasonably be viewed as Turner just hanging out there waiting to speak to a supervisor:

Because Turner himself requested a supervisor, a reasonable police officer in that situation could believe that waiting for the supervisor to arrive at the scene did not transform Turner’s detention into a de facto arrest. At the very least, Officers Grinalds and Dyess did not act objectively unreasonably in waiting for the requested supervisor—especially because Lieutenant Driver had to come from the Fort Worth Police Station across the street.

Except that most people “waiting for a supervisor” don’t do so while:

a.) handcuffed

b.) sitting in the back of a locked squad car

The length of the detention doesn’t matter. And it was ultimately the supervisor’s arrival that sprung Turner. If not for the arrival of the supervisor — who immediately recognized Turner couldn’t be arrested for refusing to ID himself — Turner would undoubtedly have spent an even longer period being detained, if not taken into the PD and processed.

The good news for Turner is that his sole remaining Fourth Amendment claims — the wrongful arrest — lives on. But the bigger win — the First Amendment protections confirmation — helps everyone else but him.

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Author: Tim Cushing

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