Public Officers

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U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
JMS:TDM:RJO
DJ 207-35-10
Special Litigation Section – PHB
950 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington DC 20530
May 14, 2012
Mark H. Grimes 
Baltimore Police Department 
Office of Legal Affairs 
601 E Fayette St 
Baltimore, MD 21202 
Mary E. Borja 
Wiley Rein LLP 
1776 K St NW 
Washington, DC 20006 
Re:   Christopher Sharp v. Baltimore City Police Department, et. al.
Dear Counsel:
Judge Paul W. Grimm scheduled a settlement conference in Christopher Sharp v. 
Baltimore City Police Department, et. al. for May 30, 2012. While we take no position on Mr. 
Sharp’s claim for damages against the individual defendants, it is the United States’ position that 
any resolution to Mr. Sharp’s claims for injunctive relief should include policy and training 
requirements that are consistent with the important First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment 
rights at stake when individuals record police officers in the public discharge of their duties. 
These rights, subject to narrowly-defined restrictions, engender public confidence in our police 
departments, promote public access to information necessary to hold our governmental officers 
accountable, and ensure public and officer safety.
The guidance in this letter is designed to assist the parties during the upcoming settlement 
conference. It specifically addresses the circumstances in this case and Baltimore City Police 
Department’s General Order J-16 (“Video Recording of Police Activity”), but also reflects the 
United States’ position on the basic elements of a constitutionally adequate policy on 
individuals’ right to record police activity.
1.  Background
In his complaint, Mr. Sharp alleged that on May 15, 2010, Baltimore City Police 
Department (“BPD”) officers seized, searched and deleted the contents of his cell phone after he 
used it to record officers forcibly arresting his friend. Compl. at 9-12, ECF. No. 2. Mr. Sharp
further alleged that BPD maintains a policy, practice or custom of advising officers to detain 
citizens who record the police while in the public discharge of their duties and to seize, search, 
and delete individuals’ recordings.  Id. at 7. On November 30, 2011, BPD and Frederick H. 
-2-Bealefeld, III filed a Motion to Dismiss Complaint of for Summary Judgment. According to the 
Motion to Dismiss, BPD promulgated a general order on recording police activity on November 
8, 2011. BPD did not file this policy as an exhibit to its Motion to Dismiss. Instead, BPD filed a 
declaration providing a brief summary of its contents.
On January 10, 2012, the United States filed a Statement of Interest in this matter.  In that 
statement, the United States urged the Court to find that private individuals have a First 
Amendment right to record police officers in the public discharge of their duties, and that 
officers violate individuals’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they seize and 
destroy such recordings without a warrant or due process. The United States also opined that, 
based on the limited information on the record regarding BPD’s development of new policies 
and training on individuals’ right to record the police, BPD failed to meet its burden of 
establishing that it had taken sufficient action to prevent future constitutional violations. On 
February 10, 2012, BPD provided the Court, Mr. Sharp and the United States with a courtesy 
copy of General Order J-16. The same day, BPD released General Order J-16 to the public.
1
Following a hearing on February 13, 2012, Judge Legg denied BPD’s motion.
Constitutionally adequate policies must be designed to effectively guide officer conduct, 
accurately reflect the contours of individuals’ rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth 
Amendments, and diminish the likelihood of future constitutional violations. BPD’s general 
order does not meet these requirements in some areas. In other areas, BPD’s general order does 
adequately protect individuals’ constitutional rights. We discuss those areas below, as well as
others in which BPD should amend the general order to ensure that individual’s constitutional 
rights are protected.
2.  Guidance on the Right to Record Police Activity.
A.  Policies should affirmatively set forth the First Amendment right to record 
police activity.
Policies should affirmatively set forth the contours of individuals’ First Amendment right 
to observe and record police officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties. Recording 
governmental officers engaged in public duties is a form of speech through which private 
individuals may gather and disseminate information of public concern, including the conduct of 
law enforcement officers.
2
1
Peter Hermann, Baltimore Police Told Not to Stop People Taking Photos or Video of Their 
Actions, The Baltimore Sun, February 11, 2012.
See, e.g., Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 82 (1st Cir. 2011) (“[b]asic 
2
There is no binding precedent to the contrary. In Szymecki v. Houck, 353 F. App’x 852 (4th 
Cir. 2009), the Fourth Circuit issued a one page, unpublished per curium opinion summarily 
concluding – without providing legal or factual support – that the “right to record police 
activities on public property was not clearly established in this circuit at the time of the alleged 
conduct.” Id. at 853; see also McCormick v. City of Lawrence, 130 F. App’x 987 (10th Cir. 
2005).  In the Fourth Circuit, “[u]npublished opinions have no precedential value.” United 
States v. Stewart, 595 F.3d 197, 199 n.1 (4th Cir. 2010); see also Glik, 655 F.3d at 85 (“[T]he 
absence of substantive discussion deprives Szymecki of any marginal persuasive value it might 
otherwise have had.”).  
-3-First Amendment principles” and federal case law “unambiguously” establish that private 
individuals possess “a constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their 
duties.”); Smith v. Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332, 1333 (11th Cir. 2000) (recognizing the “First 
Amendment right . . . to photograph or videotape police conduct.”); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 
F.3d 436, 439 (9th Cir. 1995) (recognizing the “First Amendment right to film matters of public 
interest”). The First Amendment right to record police activity is limited only by “reasonable 
time, place, and manner restrictions.” Glik, 655 F.3d at 84; Smith, 212 F.3d at 1333.
While courts have only recently begun to refine the contours of the right to record police 
officers, the justification for this right is firmly rooted in long-standing First Amendment 
principles. The right to “[g]ather[] information about government officials in a form that can 
readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and 
promoting ‘the free discussion of governmental affairs.’”  Glik, 655 F.3d at 82 (citing Mills v. 
Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966)). The application of this right to the conduct of law 
enforcement officers is critically important because officers are “granted substantial discretion 
that may be used to deprive individuals of their liberties.” Id.; Gentile v. State Bar of Nev., 501 
U.S. 1030, 1035-36 (1991) (“Public awareness and criticism have even greater importance 
where, as here, they concern allegations of police corruption.”). The “extensive public scrutiny 
and criticism” of police and other criminal justice system officials serves to “guard[] against the 
miscarriage of justice,” Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 560 (1976) (citing 
Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, 350 (1966)), a harm that undermines public confidence in 
the administration of government. When police departments take affirmative steps to protect 
individuals’ First Amendment rights, departments “not only aid[] in the uncovering of abuses . . . 
but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally.”  Glik, 655 
F.3d at 82-83.
Policies should explain the nature of the constitutional right at stake and provide officers 
with practical guidance on how they can effectively discharge their duties without violating that 
right. For example, policies should affirmatively state that individuals have a First Amendment 
right to record police officers and include examples of the places where individuals can lawfully 
record police activity and the types of activity that can be recorded.
3
While this area of the law 
3
Police duties discharged in public settings may include a range of activities, including 
detentions, searches, arrests or uses of force. In Kelly v. Borough of Carlisle, 622 F.3d 248 (3d 
Cir. 2010), the Third Circuit considered whether there was sufficient case law “establishing a 
right to videotape police officers during a traffic stop to put a reasonably competent officer on 
‘fair notice’ that seizing a camera or arresting an individual for videotaping police conduct 
during the stop would violate the First Amendment.” Id. at 262. The Court determined that, 
because there were no cases specifically addressing the right to record traffic stops and the 
relevant Third Circuit decisions were inconsistent, there was insufficient case law to support a 
finding that the right to record traffic stops was clearly established. Id. Because the right was 
not clearly established, the officer involved was entitled to qualified immunity. Id. at 262-63. 
The Third Circuit expressly did not reach the question of whether the First Amendment protects 
the recording of police activity during a traffic stop, because it did not need to reach that question 
to decide that the officer should receive qualified immunity. Id.  In other contexts, the Supreme 
Court has noted that, when faced with a close call, “the First Amendment requires [courts] to err 
on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.” FEC v. Wisconsin Right to 
-4-is still developing, existing case law is instructive. In Glik, an individual engaged in protected 
activity when he recorded officers allegedly engaging in excessive force in a public park, “the 
apotheosis of a public forum.” Glik, 655 F.3d at 84. Individuals have a right to record in all 
traditionally public spaces, including sidewalks, streets and locations of public protests. 
Courts have also extended First Amendment protection to recordings taken on private 
property, including an individual filming police activity from his or her home or other private 
property where an individual has a right to be present. See Jean v. Massachusetts State Police, 
492 F.3d 24 (1st Cir. 2007) (activist’s posting of a video of “a warrantless and potentially 
unlawful search of a private residence” on her website was entitled to First Amendment 
protection); Pomykacz v. Borough of West Wildwood, 438 F.Supp.2d 504, 513 (D. N.J. 2006) 
(individual was engaging in political activism protected by the First Amendment when she 
photographed police officer while officer was in police headquarters and in municipal building); 
Robinson v. Fetterman, 378 F.Supp.2d 534, 541 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (individual who videotaped 
state troopers from private property with the owner’s permission was engaged in constitutionally 
protected speech).  The 1991 videotaped assault of Rodney King at the hands of law enforcement 
officers exemplifies this principle. A private individual awakened by sirens recorded police 
officers assaulting King from the balcony of his apartment. This videotape provided key 
evidence of officer misconduct and led to widespread reform. Congress enacted 42 U.S.C. 
§14141 in response to this incident. Section 14141 granted the U.S. Attorney General the right 
to seek declaratory or injunctive relief against law enforcement agencies engaged in a pattern or 
practice of violating the Constitution or federal law.
BPD’s General Order J-16 should affirmatively set forth that individuals have a First 
Amendment right to record officers in the public discharge of their duties. At numerous points 
throughout General Order J-16, BPD refers to “Constitutional rights” that form the basis for the
policy. For example, General Order J-16 begins with a statement acknowledging that the 
purpose of the policy is to “to ensure the protection and preservation of every person’s 
Constitutional rights,” id. at 1, and later refers to bystanders’ “absolute right to photograph 
and/or video record the enforcement actions of any Police Officer.” Id. at 2.  Yet, General Order 
J-16 never explicitly acknowledges that this right derives from the First Amendment. 
Particularly given the numerous publicized reports over the past several years alleging that BPD 
officers violated individuals’ First Amendment rights, BPD should include a specific recitation 
of the First Amendment rights at issue in General Order J-16. 
Other areas of General Order J-16 also require further clarification. For example, 
General Order J-16 states that officers may not prohibit a person’s ability to observe, photograph, 
and/or make a video recording of police activity that occurs “in the public domain,” General 
Order J-16 at 1, but never defines this term. BPD should clarify that the right to record public 
officials is not limited to streets and sidewalks – it includes areas where individuals have a legal 
right to be present, including an individual’s home or business, and common areas of public and 
private facilities and buildings.
Life, Inc., 551 U.S. 449, 457 (2007). See also Bertot v. School Dist. No. 1, Albany County, Wyo.,
613 F.2d 245, 252 (10th Cir. 1979) (“We prefer that governmental officials acting in sensitive 
First Amendment areas err, when they do err, on the side of protecting those interests.”).
-5-B.  Policies should describe the range of prohibited responses to individuals 
observing or recording the police.
Because recording police officers in the public discharge of their duties is protected by 
the First Amendment, policies should prohibit interference with recording of police activities 
except in narrowly circumscribed situations. More particularly, policies should instruct officers 
that, except under limited circumstances, officers must not search or seize a camera or recording 
device without a warrant. In addition, policies should prohibit more subtle actions that may 
nonetheless infringe upon individuals’ First Amendment rights. Officers should be advised not 
to threaten, intimidate, or otherwise discourage an individual from recording police officer 
enforcement activities or intentionally block or obstruct cameras or recording devices.
Policies should prohibit officers from destroying recording devices or cameras and 
deleting recordings or photographs under any circumstances.  In addition to violating the First 
Amendment, police officers violate the core requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment 
procedural due process clause when they irrevocably deprived individuals of their recordings 
without first providing notice and an opportunity to object. See Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 
319, 333 (1976) (“The right to be heard before being condemned to suffer grievous loss of any 
kind . . . is a principle basic to our society.”); Stotter v. Univ. of Tex. at San Antonio, 508 F.3d 
812, 823 (5th Cir. 2007) (The notice defendant provided to the plaintiff “was insufficient to 
satisfy due process because [plaintiff] did not receive the notice until after his personal property 
was allegedly discarded . . . . [D]iscarding [plaintiff’s] personal property in this manner violated 
his procedural due process rights.”).
BPD’s General Order J-16 addresses the search and seizure of cameras or recording 
devices. However, the policy does not prohibit more subtle officer actions that nonetheless may 
infringe upon individuals’ First Amendment rights.  BPD should instruct officers not to threaten, 
intimidate, or otherwise discourage an individual from recording police officer enforcement 
activities or intentionally block or obstruct cameras or other recording devices. 
The order also prohibits officers from damaging or erasing the contents of a device 
without first obtaining a warrant, General Order J-16 at 2. This is not merely a Fourth 
Amendment question, however. Under the First Amendment, there are no circumstances under 
which the contents of a camera or recording device should be deleted or destroyed. BPD’s 
general order should include clear language prohibiting the deletion or destruction of recordings 
under any circumstances.
C.  Policies should clearly describe when an individual’s actions amount to 
interference with police duties.
The right to record police activity is limited only by “reasonable time, place, and manner 
restrictions.” Glik, 655 F.3d at 8; Smith, 212 F.3d at 1333.  If a general order permits individuals 
to record the police unless their actions interfere with police activity, the order should define 
what it means for an individual to interfere with police activity and, when possible, provide 
specific examples in order to effectively guide officer conduct and prevent infringement on 
activities protected by the First Amendment. 
-6-A person may record public police activity unless the person engages in actions that 
jeopardize the safety of the officer, the suspect, or others in the vicinity, violate the law, or incite 
others to violate the law.  See, e.g., Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 573 (1942)
(words “likely to cause a fight” are not afforded First Amendment protection); see also
Louisiana ex rel. Gremillion v. National Ass’n for the Advancement of Colored People, 366 U.S. 
293, 297 (1961) (“criminal conduct . . . cannot have shelter in the First Amendment”). Courts 
have held that speech is not protected by the First Amendment if it amounts to actual obstruction 
of a police officer’s investigation – for example, by tampering with a witness or persistently 
engaging an officer who is in the midst of his or her duties. See Colten v. Commonwealth of 
Kentucky, 407 U.S. 104 (1972) (individual’s speech not protected by the First Amendment where 
individual persistently tried to engage an officer in conversation while the officer was issuing a 
summons to a third party on a congested roadside and refused to depart the scene after at least 
eight requests from officers); King v. Ambs, 519 F.3d 607 (6th Cir. 2008) (individual was not 
engaged in protected speech when he repeatedly instructed a witness being questioned by a 
police officer not to respond to questions).
However, an individual’s recording of police activity from a safe distance without any 
attendant action intended to obstruct the activity or threaten the safety of others does not amount 
to interference. Nor does an individual’s conduct amount to interference if he or she expresses 
criticism of the police or the police activity being observed. See City of Houston, Tex. v. Hill, 
482 U.S. 451, 461 (1987) (“[T]he First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal 
criticism and challenge directed at police officers.”); Norwell v. City of Cincinnati, Ohio, 414 
U.S. 14, 16 (1973) (“Surely, one is not to be punished for nonprovocatively voicing his objection 
to what he obviously felt was a highly questionable detention by a police officer.”) Even foul 
expressions of disapproval towards police officers are protected under the First Amendment.
4
See, e.g., Duran v. City of Douglas, Arizona, 904 F.2d 1372, 1377-78 (9th Cir. 1990) (individual 
who was “making obscene gestures” and “yell[ed] profanities” at an officer engaged in conduct 
that “fell squarely within the protective umbrella of the First Amendment and any action to 
punish or deter such speech—such as stopping or hassling the speaker—is categorically 
prohibited by the Constitution.”). 
Time, place, and manner restrictions on First Amendment speech must “leave open ample 
alternative channels for communication of the information,” Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 
U.S. 781, 791 (1989). BPD’s general order specifically suggests that, if a bystander’s actions are 
4
The Supreme Court has carved out an exception for “‘fighting’ words – those which by their 
very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” Chaplinsky, 315 
U.S. at 572. However, the Court has indicated that the fighting words exception “might require a 
narrower application in cases involving words addressed to a police officer, because ‘a properly 
trained officer may reasonably be expected to exercise a higher degree of restraint’ than the 
average citizen, and thus be less likely to respond belligerently to ‘fighting words.’” Hill, 482 
U.S. at 462. See also Johnson v. Campbell, 332 F.3d 199 (3d Cir. 2003) (detainee’s words “son 
of a bitch” to police officer were not fighting words); Posr v. Court Officer Shield #207, 180 
F.3d 409 (2d Cir. 1999) (individual’s statement to officer “one day you’re gonna get yours,” 
spoken while in retreat, were not fighting words); Buffkins v. City of Omaha, Douglas County, 
922 F.2d 465, 472 (8th Cir. 1991) (finding no evidence that individual caused “an incitement to 
immediate lawless action” by calling officer “asshole”). 
-7-“approaching the level of a criminal offense,” supervisors should “recommend a less-intrusive 
location to the bystander from which he/she may continue to observe, photograph, or video 
record the police activity.” Id. at 5. This is effective language to guide supervisor’s conduct. 
However, BPD’s general order does not permit or recommend that “members” – presumably 
officers – provide this information to bystanders before effectuating an arrest. BPD should 
revise its general order to provide “members” with the same authority.
General Order J-16 must set forth with specificity the narrow circumstances in which a
recording individual’s interference with police activity could subject the individual to arrest. 
Recent publicized interactions between citizen-recorders and BPD officers highlight the need for 
clear guidance on this issue. See Peter Hermann, Police Allow Bystanders to Tape Arrest, But at 
What Risk?, The Baltimore Sun, April 3, 2012 (president of the city police union stating that 
officers “are confused right now” about how to appropriately respond to individuals recording 
police conduct); see also, Fox45 Top News Stories Video, Fox45 WBFF Baltimore, March 22, 
2012 (covering the suspension of a BPD officer who confiscated a cell phone from an individual 
recording police from a family member’s property)
5
; Justin Fenton, In Federal Hill, Citizens 
Allowed to Record Police – But Then There’s Loitering, The Baltimore Sun, February 11, 2012 
(BPD officer instructing a citizen-recorder that he would face loitering charges if he failed to 
move away from the scene of an arrest).
Under “General Information,” General Order J-16 at 2, the policy states that bystanders 
have an absolute right to record police activity as long as the bystanders’ actions do not fall into 
one of six exceptions. One exception is that bystanders may not “Interfere with or violate any 
section of the law, ordinance, code, or criminal or traffic article.” While bystanders clearly may 
not violate the law, it is less clear under what circumstances an individual’s actions would 
“interfere” with a law or ordinance.  This language encourages officers to use their discretion in 
inappropriate, and possibly unlawful, ways. Instead, General Order J-16 should encourage 
officers to provide ways in which individuals can continue to exercise their First Amendment 
rights as officers perform their duties, rather than encourage officers to look for potential 
violations of the law in order to restrict the individual’s recording.
D. Policies should provide clear guidance on supervisory review.
First line supervision is a critical component of constitutional policing. Policies should 
include guidance on when an officer should call a supervisor to the scene and what a supervisor’s 
responsibilities are once he or she arrives at the scene. A supervisor’s presence at the scene 
should be required before an officer takes any significant action involving citizen-recorders or 
recording devices, including a warrantless search or seizure of a camera or recording device or 
an arrest.
6
5
6
Supervisors should be present at the scene to approve any arrest for conduct related to the use 
of cameras or recording devices. For example, an arrest for quality of life offenses, including 
“hindering” or “loitering,” may be based upon the individuals’ alleged interference with police 
duties while using a recording device. See, e.g., Justin Fenton, In Federal Hill, Citizens Allowed 
to Record Police – But Then There’s Loitering, The Baltimore Sun, February 11, 2012 (BPD 
-8-BPD should clarify the role of supervisors. A supervisor’s presence at the scene should 
be required before an officer takes any significant action involving cameras or recording devices, 
including a warrantless search or seizure. If feasible, supervisors should be present prior to an 
individual’s arrest related to the use of a recording device. At a minimum, supervisors must be 
present to approve such arrests before an individual is transported to a holding facility. BPD’s 
general order does not include mandatory language requiring supervisors to be present during 
these occurrences, but rather advises supervisors to be present “if possible.” General Order J-16
at 4. 
Moreover, BPD’s general order includes inconsistent language regarding when a member 
should contact a supervisor. On page 4, officers are instructed to notify a supervisor after an
individual has been arrested. Later on the same page, under the supervisor’s responsibilities, the 
supervisor is advised to go to any scene where the actions of a bystander are “approaching the 
level of a criminal offense.” BPD should reconcile this inconsistency and require, at a minimum, 
a supervisor’s presence at the scene to approve all arrests or any other significant action by a 
member.
E.  Policies should describe when it is permissible to seize recordings and 
recording devices.
Policies on individuals’ right to record and observe police should provide officers with 
clear guidance on the limited circumstances under which it may be permissible to seize 
recordings and recording devices. An officer’s response to an individual’s recording often 
implicates both the First and Fourth Amendment, so it’s particularly important that a general 
order is consistent with basic search and seizure principles. A general order should provide 
officers with guidance on how to lawfully seek an individual’s consent to review photographs or 
recordings and the types of circumstances that do—and do not—provide exigent circumstances 
to seize recording devices, the permissible length of such a seizure, and the prohibition against 
warrantless searches once a device has been seized. Moreover, this guidance must reflect the 
special protection afforded to First Amendment materials. 
Policies should include language to ensure that consent is not coerced, implicitly or 
explicitly. See Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 228 (1973) (“[T]he Fourth and 
Fourteenth Amendments require that a consent not be coerced, by explicit or implicit means, by 
implied threat or covert force.  For, no matter how subtly the coercion was applied, the resulting 
‘consent’ would be no more than a pretext for the unjustified police intrusion against which the 
Fourth Amendment is directed.”). In assessing whether an individual’s consent to search was 
freely and voluntarily given, Courts may consider “the characteristics of the accused . . . as well 
as the conditions under which the consent to search was given (such as the officer’s conduct; the 
number of officers present; and the duration, location, and time of the encounter).” United States 
v. Lattimore, 87 F.3d 647, 650 (4th Cir. 1996). BPD’s explanation of the process for obtaining 
consent includes clear guidelines regarding what steps an officer should take once an individual 
provides an officer with consent to review a recording. However, BPD’s general order should 
include language to ensure that consent is not coerced, implicitly or explicitly.
officer instructing a citizen-recorder that he would face loitering charges if he failed to move 
away from the scene of an arrest). 
-9-Warrantless seizures are only permitted if an officer has probable cause to believe that the 
property “holds contraband or evidence of a crime” and “the exigencies of the circumstances 
demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present.” United 
States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 701 (1983). Any such seizure must be a “temporary restraint[]
where needed to preserve evidence until police c[an] obtain a warrant.” Illinois v. McArthur, 531 
U.S. 326, 334 (2001). Seizures must be limited to a reasonable period of time. For example, in 
Illinois v. McArthur, the Supreme court upheld a  police officer’s warrantless seizure of a 
premises, in part, because police had good reason to fear that evidence would be destroyed and 
the restraint only lasted for two hours – “no longer than reasonably necessary for the police, 
acting with diligence, to obtain the warrant.” Id. at 332. Once seized, officers may not search the 
contents of the property without first obtaining the warrant. Place, 462 U.S. at 701 & n.3.  In the 
context of the seizure of recording devices, this means that officers may not search for or review 
an individual’s recordings absent a warrant.
Police departments must also recognize that the seizure of a camera that may contain 
evidence of a crime is significantly different from the seizure of other evidence because such 
seizure implicates the First, as well as the Fourth, Amendment.  The Supreme Court has afforded
heightened protection to recordings containing material protected by the First Amendment. An
individual’s recording may contain both footage of a crime relevant to a police investigation and 
evidence of police misconduct. The latter falls squarely within the protection of First 
Amendment. See, e.g., Gentile v. State Bar of Nev., 501 U.S. 1030, 1034 (1991) (“There is no 
question that speech critical of the exercise of the State’s power lies at the very center of the First 
Amendment.”). The warrantless seizure of such material is a form of prior restraint, a long 
disfavored practice. Roaden v. Kentucky, 413 U.S. 496, 503 (1973) (when an officer “br[ings] to 
an abrupt halt an orderly and presumptively legitimate distribution or exhibition” of material 
protected by the First Amendment, such action is “plainly a form of prior restraint and is, in 
those circumstances, unreasonable under Fourth Amendment standards.”). See also Rossignol v. 
Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (Where sheriff’s deputies suppressed newspapers 
critical of the sheriff “before the critical commentary ever reached the eyes of readers, their 
conduct met the classic definition of a prior restraint.”).  An officer’s warrantless seizure of an
individual’s recording of police activity is no different.  See Robinson v. Fetterman, 378 
F.Supp.2d 534, 541 (E.D. Penn 2005) (By restraining an individual from “publicizing or 
publishing what he has filmed,” officer’s “conduct clearly amounts to an unlawful prior restraint 
upon [] protected speech.”); see Channel 10, Inc. v. Gunnarson, 337 F.Supp. 634, 637 (D.Minn.
1972) (“it is clear to this court that the seizure and holding of the camera and undeveloped film 
was an unlawful ‘prior restraint’ whether or not the film was ever reviewed.”). 
The warrantless seizure of material protected by the First Amendment “calls for a higher 
hurdle in the evaluation of reasonableness” under the Fourth Amendment. Roaden v. Kentucky, 
413 U.S. 496, 504 (1973). Police departments should limit the circumstances under which 
cameras and recording devices can be seized and the length of the permissible seizure. BPD’s 
general order does not convey that the warrantless seizure of recording material is different than 
the warrantless seizure of many other types of evidence, in that it implicates the First, as well as 
the Fourth, Amendment. General Order J-16 should make it clear to officers that, in the ordinary 
course of events, there will not be facts justifying the seizure of cameras or recording devices. 
Moreover, General Order J-16 does not define “temporary” seizure. BPD should clarify how 
long and under what circumstances an officer may seize a recording device, even temporarily, 
-10-and how the recordings on the device must be maintained after seizure. A policy permitting 
officers, with supervisory approval, to seize a film for no longer than reasonably necessary for 
the police, acting with diligence, to obtain the warrant if that film contains critical evidence of a 
felony crime would diminish the likelihood of constitutional violations.
F.  Police departments should not place a higher burden on individuals to 
exercise their right to record police activity than they place on members of the 
press.
The Supreme Court has established that “the press does not have a monopoly on either 
the First Amendment or the ability to enlighten.”  First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 
765, 782 (1978). Indeed, numerous courts have held that a private individual’s right to record is 
coextensive with that of the press. A private individual does not need “press credentials” to 
record police officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties. See e.g., Glik, 655 F.3d at 
83 (“The First Amendment right to gather news is, as the Court has often noted, not one that 
inures solely to the benefit of the news media; rather, the public’s right of access to information 
is coextensive with that of the press.”); Lambert v. Polk County, Iowa, 723 F.Supp. 128, 133 
(S.D. Iowa  1989) (“It is not just news organizations . . . who have First Amendment rights to 
make and display videotapes of events—all of us . . . have that right.”). The First Amendment 
“attempt[s] to secure ‘the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and 
antagonistic sources,’” including the “promulgation of information and ideas by persons who do 
not themselves have access to publishing facilities-who wish to exercise their freedom of speech 
even though they are not members of the press.” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 
266 (1964).
This principal is particularly important in the current age where widespread access to 
recording devices and online media have provided private individuals with the capacity to gather 
and disseminate newsworthy information with an ease that rivals that of the traditional news 
media. See Glik, 655 F.3d at 84 (“[M]any of our images of current events come from bystanders 
with a ready cell phone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew, and news stories are 
now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major 
newspaper.”).
BPD’s general order appropriately does not place a higher burden on individuals to 
exercise their right to record police activity than in places on members of the press. Policies
should not establish different guidelines for media and non-media individuals. BPD’s general 
order includes language that accomplishes this goal:
“Members of the press and members of the general public enjoy the same rights in 
any area accessible to the general public.” Id. at 4.
“No individual is required to display ‘press credentials’ in order to exercise 
his/her right to observe, photograph, or video record police activity taking place in 
an area accessible to, or within view of, the general public.” Id.
united_states_letter_re_photography_5_14_2012_0.pdf united_states_letter_re_photography_5_14_2012_0.pdf
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