Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right—and that includes police and other government officials carrying out their duties.
However, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs or video in public places and harassing, detaining, and arresting those who fail to comply.
The right of citizens to record the police is a critical check and balance. It creates an independent record of what took place in a particular incident, free from accusations of bias, lying, or faulty memory. It is no accident that some of the most high-profile cases of police misconduct have involved video and audio records.
- When you are lawfully present in any public space, you have the right to photograph anything in plain view, including federal buildings and the police. (On private property, the owner may set rules about photography or video.)
- Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant, nor may they delete data under any circumstances. However, they may order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.
- If you are videotaping, be aware that there is an important legal distinction between a visual photographic record (fully protected) and the audio portion of a videotape, which some states have tried to regulate under state wiretapping laws.
What to do if you are stopped or detained for taking photographs
- Always remain calm and never physically resist a police officer.
- Police cannot detain you without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so.
- If you are stopped, ask the officer if you are free to leave. If the answer is yes, calmly walk away.
- If you are detained, ask the officer what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.