Is recording the police with your cell phone an illegal act? Civil liberties experts say it isn’t. Repeatedly, judges across the nation have agreed. So why are Tennessee cops arresting people for recording them and charging them with crimes like disorderly conduct? Seemingly, the answer is: because they can.
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis police have arrested two men in a matter of a few days, both because they were recording officers acting in the line of duty. In both cases, the men were charged with disorderly conduct and the handcuffs stopped their recording action.
One year ago, the Supreme Court decided not to hear a case out of Illinois that would have made recording the police illegal. For many, recording tax-payer funded police officers while fulfilling their job duties in public is a no-brainer, an exercise in the First Amendment. But for the officers, it doesn’t seem to be so clear.
“The people who are recording are winning in court. But the problem is that, out on the streets, police officers can informally order people to put their phones away or threaten them with arrest if they don’t,” said Tim Lynch of the Cato Institute.
“If they do an arrest, they come up with a charge (such as) disorderly conduct or interfering with an investigation. Those charges may be dropped over the next couple of days, but police officers have accomplished their goal of disrupting the recording.”
So, in essence, the police are finding a temporary solution to their problem, where the problem is they don’t want to star in a potentially viral cell phone video. They arrest the citizen, the charges are eventually dropped, but the problem was solved in their mind.
For the person being arrested, the problem is far from solved.
The prospect of a disorderly conduct conviction is quite frightening, particularly for someone with no prior run-ins with the law. It is a misdemeanor that carries potential jail time and a criminal history that will follow you for a lifetime. Even if the charges are dropped, you must still go through the humiliating and stressful experience of an arrest, booking, and court appearances.
While a spokesperson for the Memphis Police Department says officers are specifically told to not interfere with recording, the department Director says there is no policy in place governing the activity. Perhaps it’s time for one, so that inconvenienced officers will have just cause to make an arrest rather than simply putting cuffs on someone to take away their ability to record.