Last week, two years after Washington, D.C., cops told Jerome Vorus to stop taking pictures of a traffic stop in Georgetown and to stop recording his encounter with them, the Metropolitan Police Department issued a general order against such illegal interference with citizens' exercise of their First Amendment rights. The order (PDF), part of an agreement settling a federal lawsuit Vorus filed last year with help from the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital, "recognizes that members of the general public have a First Amendment right to video record, photograph, and/or audio record MPD members while MPD members are conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space, unless such recordings interfere with police activity." That was not the position taken by the cops who detained Vorus in July 2010, four of whom incorrectly informed him that he was breaking the law by photographing and recording police without permission from the department's public affairs office. To the contrary, Police Chief Cathy Lanier says in the new directive, "A bystander has the same right to take photographs or make recordings as a member of the media, as long as the bystander has a legal right to be present where he or she is located."
That right applies in "public settings" such as "parks, sidewalks, streets, and locations of public protests" as well as "an individual's home or business, common areas of public and private facilities and buildings, and any other public or private facility at which the individual has a legal right to be present." If someone is legally taking pictures or making a recording, an officer may not "order that person to cease such activity," "demand that person's identification," "demand that the person state a reason why he or she is taking photographs or recording," "detain that person," "intentionally block or obstruct cameras or recording devices," or ""in any way threaten, intimidate or otherwise discourage an individual from recording [officers'] enforcement activities." Furthermore, "a person has the right to express criticism of the police activity being observed…so long as that expression does not jeopardize the safety of any member, suspect or bystander…and so long as that expression does not violate the law or incite others to violate the law."
The order also establishes procedures for police access to photographs or recordings that they have probable cause to believe include "evidence of criminal acts." Instead of handing over his device, a bystander can choose to transmit the files by email, for example. If the bystander declines to cooperate, the officer can seize the evidence without a warrant only in "exigent circumstances" and only with clearance from the watch commander.