Arrested for recording the police on your own property

The American Civil Liberties Union often advises people to record encounters with the police in order to discourage abusive behavior, or to capture evidence of such behavior when it does occur. The ACLU has even distributed video cameras to the public for free in areas where allegations of police misconduct are especially egregious. Residents of high-crime areas in St. Louis were among the recipients of such high-tech largesse. But if you take the ACLU's advice, you may find yourself put in handcuffs by cops who don't want their actions recorded for posterity.

Cooper Travis can tell you all about that. He was arrested outside his own home for openly recording an encounter with a police officer.

Travis is a Candia, New Hampshire resident who was at home on November 4 when Steven Sprowl, an inspector from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showed up at the property, demanding access to see if there is shelter for horses kept on the premises. New Hampshire is among the states that delegate certain police powers to private organizations, such as the SPCA, including the power to enter property and make arrests.

Travis denied entry at the instruction of the property owner, who wanted to be present for any search. Sprowl then contacted Candia police.

Once an officer arrived, Cooper Travis and caretaker Beth Garthwaite began recording the interaction, with the officer's consent. The resulting video clearly shows a polite, if pointed discussion, with Travis and Garthwaite remaining on their side of the property fence. After a few minutes, the police officer, clearly hot under the collar, ordered the camera turned off. Travis declined, no doubt preferring to have a record of the entire encounter.

He ended up in handcuffs for his troubles (no charges were brought against him and he was released later that day).

Travis's arrest by a clearly annoyed cop is just the latest example of ticked-off police officers using the law as a weapon to block or punish efforts to monitor their conduct. New Hampshire law requires consent for audio recording (apparently you can record video alone without consent) -- even in encounters with government employees working in their official capacity, and even on private property. That law has been used to punish videographers monitoring police conduct in the past: The Concord Monitor refers to two other incidents in which private citizens were arrested for recording police encounters.

Michael Gannon, 40, of Nashua was arrested after his home security camera made video and audio recordings of detectives who had come looking for his teenage son. Felony wiretapping charges against him were later dropped.

Gannon was arrested after he brought the recordings to the police station to complain that a detective had been rude to him....

... a case in the Keene area, in which a motorist was charged for turning on a tape recorder after being pulled over by the police, Dumaine said.

Such arrests aren't confined to New Hampshire. Pennsylvanian Brian Kelly briefly faced up to ten years in prison under an old wiretapping law for recording police with a handheld camera before the Cumberland County District Attorney backed off under public pressure. Mary T. Jean faced a similar battle with Massachusetts authorities after posting video of an illegal search on her Website; she finally won her case in federal court.

Such over-the-top use of the arrest power to keep the public in the dark inspired New Hampshire lawmakers to consider legislation that would allow New Hampshire residents to freely videorecord their private property and encounters in public places. The private property bill was killed by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Arresting people for recording the police is ridiculous and contemptible. Law-enforcement officers, drawing tax-funded paychecks, wearing officially issued uniforms, and wielding vast powers that can be (and have been) misused against the public, should be subject to recording at all times, for the safety of the public. Officers unwilling to have their actions preserved in video and audio form probably ought not be carrying guns and badges.

Count me among those who applaud the Cooper Travises of the world -- and who want to see their actions legal and common everywhere.


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Contact J.D.: civilliberties (at) tuccille.com

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