New York District Court Denies Immunity To NYPD Officers Who Arrested A Citizen For Filming Them
from the no-immunity-for-deliberate-obtuseness dept
Some NYPD officers have continued to cling to the belief that citizens aren’t allowed to film them, despite plenty of documentation otherwise. A letter issued to the Baltimore PD, but that CC’d law enforcement in general noted that “the justification for [filming police] is firmly rooted in longstanding First Amendment principles.” (The footnote appended to this added: “There is no binding precedence to the contrary.”) The NYPD’s own Patrol Guide states this:
“[T]aking photographs, videotapes or tape recordings” do not constitute probable cause for arrest or detention so long as the activity does not jeopardize the safety of officers or others.
The NYPD’s chief of federal litigation likewise reminded officers that bystanders could film police officers provided they didn’t interfere with duties or operations.
It would seem to be clearly established (including decisions to this effect from all but one circuit court in the US) and yet certain officers are still shutting down citizens with cameras and arresting them on clearly bogus charges. The NYPD is currently facing a lawsuit from the ACLU that hopes to obtain a ruling declaring this activity to be covered by the First Amendment. That lawsuit may ultimately prove to be extraneous as the Southern District of New York (which oversees New York City) has now confirmed that citizen recordings are protected First Amendment activity.
The facts behind the suit are this:
Douglas Higginbotham was covering the Occupy Wall Street protests for a New Zealand TV station. While shooting footage from atop a phone booth, he was ordered to get down by NYPD officers. He attempted to climb down but there were too many people crowded around the booth. So, the cops dragged him down by his feet, damaging his camera in the process. He was then cuffed with zip ties for three hours (and sprung from them with a butter knife because the NYPD is apparently more interested in the cuffing process than the releasing process) and charged with disorderly conduct.
Higginbotham claimed the arrest was performed in retaliation for his filming police officers, and as such, was a false arrest. The NYPD countered by claiming Higginbotham’s supposed “failure to disperse” justified the charge. The court found otherwise:
The parties dispute whether, as a journalist covering the protest, Higginbotham can properly be said to have been “congregating” with the protesters within the meaning of the statute. The Court need not resolve this question, however, because there is a different reason why the statute does not cover Higginbotham’s conduct: the defendants’ order for Higginbotham to climb down from the telephone booth was not an order to “disperse.” That word, as used in the statute, means “[t]o separate, go different ways.” Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed. online version Mar. 2015). There is no allegation that Higginbotham was ordered to “separate” himself from the rest of the crowd, by leaving the scene of the protest. On the contrary, as alleged, the defendants instructed that he climb down from the phone booth into the crowd. Further, “[a] group can disperse; an individual cannot.” Because the defendants’ order was directed at Higginbotham alone, it could not be an order to disperse.
The NYPD also raised a variety of other justifications for this arrest (including potential damage to the phone booth and creating a “hazard” by his being on top of the phone booth) but these were also dismissed as inapplicable by the judge. The department also claimed that, even if there were no legitimate reason to arrest Higginbotham, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.
In support of qualified immunity, the defendants merely summarize their version of the facts and assert that “the officers were objectively reasonable and patently not incompetent.” (Defs.’ Br. 12.) At the summary judgment stage, they will have the opportunity to try to demonstrate this by submitting evidence showing that reasonably competent officers in their situation could have at least disagreed on whether probable cause existed. Based solely on the complaint, however, the Court cannot conclude that this must have been the case.
Finally, the court addresses the First Amendment issue, and here the NYPD officers again attempt to claim immunity.
The defendants further assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity because the right to record the police is “insufficiently defined.”
The “no one directly — at that moment — told us not to” defense is one that should be undermined considerably by statements and policies issued by the NYPD itself. The court doesn’t need a copy of the Patrol Guide to arrive at the same endpoint.
The Court concludes, however, that the right to record police activity in public, at least in the case of a journalist who is otherwise unconnected to the events recorded, was in fact “clearly established” at the time of the events alleged in the complaint. When neither the Supreme Court nor the Second Circuit has decided an issue, a court “may nonetheless treat the law as clearly established if decisions from . . . other circuits ‘clearly foreshadow a particular ruling on the issue.’”
The court then goes on to point out that the First Amendment rights the officers claimed were “insufficiently defined” had been clearly established by years of precedent rulings.
Certainly, the right to record police activity in a public space is not without limits, and some uncertainty may exist on its outer bounds. For instance, it may not apply in particularly dangerous situations, if the recording interferes with the police activity, if it is surreptitious, if it is done by the subject of the police activity, or if the police activity is part of an undercover investigation. As alleged, however, Higginbotham’s conduct falls comfortably within the zone protected by the First Amendment. The complaint alleges that he was a professional journalist present to record a public demonstration for broadcast and not a participant in the events leading up to the arrest he was filming. There is nothing in the complaint suggesting that his filming interfered with the arrest. Accordingly, and in light of the case law consensus described above, a reasonable police officer would have been on notice that retaliating against a non-participant, professional journalist for filming an arrest under the circumstances alleged would violate the First Amendment.
Now, this is still far from the final ruling, so there’s no precedent specific to the NYPD’s territory set at this point. But the court’s denial of qualified immunity in respect to Higginbotham’s First Amendment claims serves notice that future assertions of well-meaning, not-patently-incompetent ignorance won’t be entertained by this court. The plaintiff’s suit will move forward and the officers accused of taking retaliatory action against a photographer will have to move right along with it. I would expect a settlement in the near future if the NYPD wishes to prevent the Second Circuit from joining the rest of the circuit courts in establishing a First Amendment right to record.