Earlier this month, Senate Bill 1054 was introduced in the legislature by Arizona State Senator John Kavanagh The bill would make it an offense to take a video of “law enforcement activity” if you are within 20 feet from such activity, unless you have the permission of the officer. The proposed legislation goes on to specify rules and procedures applicable to recording in an enclosed structure. Violation is a petty offense, unless the person fails to comply with a verbal warning or has a prior conviction under the law, in which case it is a class 3 misdemeanor.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist – or, for that matter, a professional photographer – to understand the reasons behind this legislative initiative. More and more incidents involving police mistreatment of citizens are being caught on camera. As a result, it is becoming more and more difficult for the cops to pretend the police misconduct didn’t take place, or to report that the incident occurred in a way that is at odds with the truth.
Of course, that’s just what we think. Senator Kavanagh has a specific situation that he says prompted him to submit the bill. The Senator says that in the 1970’s, while he was a Port Authority cop in New York, he was distracted during an arrest, and missed the arrestee tossing an envelope of heroin behind a television. The distraction, according to Kavanagh, was “someone being behind me while I was making an arrest.” Specifically, it was caused by a well-known singer leaning over and asking the Kavanagh a question.
We’re not sure how the incident in New York relates to the bill. It’s not actually a non sequitur, not do we think it qualifies as an oxymoron. But we will suggest that it’s a ruse. If the goal is to prevent officers from being distracted by otherwise lawful behavior taking place within 20 feet of the “activity,” why, of all the potential distractions in the world, pick on the guy recording on his cell phone? We’ll tell you why – because this bill has little to do with distractions. It’s designed first and foremost to shield police misconduct from public view.
One other thing, and it’s a significant one. Taking photos/videos of public events in public places, most knowledgeable folks would agree, is protected by the First Amendment. The argument in opposition concerns trying to avoid interference when an officer is making an arrest, or otherwise performing his duties. The answer is that there are offenses on the book of just about every municipality in the state of Arizona, including Phoenix (Phoenix Municipal Code 23-18) prohibiting such interference.
In addition to the First Amendment, the bill may also have problems on the due process front. Since “law enforcement activity” is not defined in the bill, it leaves the public at sea when it comes to understanding what triggers the 20-foot bubble.
A similar measure proposed in Texas failed last year.
Law Offices of David A. Black
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Phoenix, AZ 85004