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Filming Police Activities in California – What You Need to Know

Jan 1, 2023 | Knowledge

The prolific use of smartphones with recording capabilities and social media has enabled the public to record police activities. While most police contacts are professional and without incident, this practice has allowed the public to catch some police activities and situations that raise community concerns about police misconduct. These recordings have led to the public demanding changes from law enforcement to keep them accountable for their practices, assist with providing evidence in litigation and investigations, and enable police departments to address issues vital to the proper evolution of policing in the United States.

Is it Legal to Film Cops in California?

Yes, it is legal for the public to film law enforcement under the First Amendment. 
 
The First Amendment guarantees a person’s right to freedom of speech, and the Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has agreed that the constitutional right covers the filming of police officers at work. This ruling protects the public’s right to film police officers, police stations, and police vehicles.
 
In addition, the California Penal Code Section 148(g) states explicitly that a person audio or video recording police activities in a public setting is not by itself a violation of public justice or order.

“In this day and age, every single  police officer should automatically assume that they’re being filmed, regardless of whether they see someone filming them or not.  By always thinking you are on camera you’ll be prepared if someone shoves a camera in your face in an attempt to bait you into reacting in a negative manner.”

Brandi harper

Are There Any Limitations in Filming Cops in California?

Yes, there are limitations on when a person is allowed to film police activities in California.

Although recording police activities are protected under the First Amendment, this protection does not extend to anybody who obstructs the police officer’s actions while conducting their duty or if such an act of recording would endanger another person’s life.

Depending on the intent of the interference done by the person recording the police activity, California Penal Code Section 148(a) establishes varying punishments. Specifically, a person who “willfully resists, delays, or obstructs” a police officer from conducting their duty may be punishable by the following: 

  • A fine of no more than one thousand dollars ($1,000.00), or
  • Imprisonment in a county jail for a year or less, or
  • Both fines and imprisonment

In addition, California Penal Code Section 647 prohibits filming a police officer secretly or with a concealed camera. Since California is a “two-party” consent state, it is considered illegal to record someone, a police officer or not, without them expressing consent to the recording. Hence, a person recording police activity must be doing it openly. Otherwise, the person recording may be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by the following:

  • A fine of no more than one thousand dollars ($1,000.00), or
  • Imprisonment in a county jail for a year or less, or
  • Both fines and imprisonment

Conclusion

Generally, unless an individual is significantly obstructing or interfering in an investigation, they are allowed to record.  Merely being hostile or screaming is not enough to amount to a violation.  While it may make it difficult for officers on the scene as it can be distracting, it is within the individual’s rights and must be allowed.  Additionally, with most officers wearing body cameras, most of what is caught on cell phones are also shown on body cameras.  Lastly, when a critical incident occurs, it is important to remember that officers should determine if anything was caught on a cell phone camera by a bystander, as it may prove helpful in the investigation.

Author

  • Brandi Harper

    Brandi Harper is a managing partner at the Castillo Harper Law Firm in Southern California. The firm focuses on representing first responders in administrative, criminal, civil, and family law matters.

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