Colorado resident Levi Frasier sued police in Denver after he was detained, questioned and threatened with arrest by officers trying to force him to turn over a video he had of police attacking – violently punching and head-slamming – a suspect.
Now the Rutherford Institute, an international nonprofit civil liberties legal team that fights on behalf of constitutional and human rights issues nationwide, has filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals charging that the right to make those videos should be protected.
“Police body cameras will never serve as an effective check on police misconduct as long the cameras can be turned on and off at will and the footage remains inaccessible to the public,” said John W. Whitehead, chief of the institute and a constitutional lawyer.
“However, technology makes it possible for Americans to record their own interactions with police and they have every right to do so without fear of intimidation or arrest,” he said. “Mobile devices have proven to be increasingly powerful reminders to police that they are not all powerful. The ability to record police interactions in public provides for greater accountability when it comes to police interactions with the citizenry and should be preserved a necessary right of the people.”
The case explains it was in August of 2014 that Frasier watched two plainclothes Denver officers “in the process of arresting a man suspected of drug dealing.”
He moved a distance away and started recording on his tablet.
“The recording showed the police pinning the suspect’s head to the pavement and punching him in the face numerous times, causing his head to repeatedly and violently hit the pavement. One of the police saw Frasier and called out ‘camera!’ Frasier continued to record the incident as the suspect’s girlfriend approached the police, only to be grabbed by the leg and pulled to the ground by one of the officers,” the institute reported.
Frasier stopped recording at that point and went to his nearby truck, only to be confronted by police with orders he return to the scene.
One officer “told Frasier, ‘Well, we could do this the easy way, or we could do this the hard way,’ gesturing toward the back seat of the squad car, which Frasier interpreted as a threat to take him to jail if he did not produce the video.”
Frasier eventually was coerced into letting police search his tablet, but officers did not find the video.
When it appeared later in the media an internal investigation was started by the Denver police, and Frasier sued alleging police retaliated against him for utilizing his First Amendment right to record officers.
“After the trial court upheld Frasier’s claim, the police filed an appeal seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, arguing that the public’s right to record police was not clearly established,” Rutherford reported.
But it noted in its brief other courts have affirmed a First Amendment right to collect information about government activities, including police actions.
In fact, the brief explains, “Attorneys affiliated with the Institute have filed amicus curiae briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts of appeal on numerous occasions over the Institute’s history.”
In noted the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “held that bystanders have a right to record police officers.”
“Not only is the right to photograph and videotape law enforcement activities and personnel in public places now an established First Amendment right across the nation (regardless of whether the activity may be deemed ‘expressive’), but the right is essential to protect the citizen-press, which plays an ever-increasingly important role in the dissemination of information,” the institute explained in its brief.