Supreme Court Asked To Firmly Establish A First Amendment Right To Record Police Officers
from the an-inevitable-conclusion,-but-how-much-longer-do-we-need-to-wait? dept
Earlier this year, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals awarded qualified immunity to officers who grabbed a tablet from Levi Frasier and tried to delete his recording of them. Frasier happened across these officers applying force during an arrest and decided to record it. The officer didn’t like this so they took away his device and tried to find the video to delete it. Apparently unable to locate it, the officer yelled back to his partner that he couldn’t find the recording, to which his partner replied, “As long as there’s no video, it’s ok.”
The lower court found in favor of the officers, ruling they had reasonable suspicion to detain Frasier because he had lied about recording them, supposedly breaking a law that has nothing to do with lying to officers (at least not in this fashion).
The district court, as relevant here, held that Officer Evans had reasonable suspicion to detain Mr. Frasier throughout their twenty-three-minute encounter because Mr. Frasier lied to him about filming the arrest, thereby potentially violating Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-8-111, which proscribes knowingly making certain false statements to the police.
But this statute covers false emergency reports, falsely reporting crimes, and lying to officers about who you are when you’re arrested. It clearly doesn’t cover the conduct shown here. Nevertheless, the lower court used this justification to extend qualified immunity to the officers, despite the fact the officers had received training and notification that there was a presumed right to record police — something backed up by court precedent around the nation.
The Tenth Circuit used the lower court’s reasoning to justify its own finding in favor of the officers. And it went on to say that just because a cop has been informed that seizing or preventing recordings violates people’s rights, no “reasonable” officer with the same training would assume that meant they couldn’t seize people’s devices and attempt to delete recordings.
[J]udicial decisions are the only valid interpretive source of the content of clearly established law, and, consequently, whatever training the officers received concerning the nature of Mr. Frasier’s First Amendment rights was irrelevant to the clearly-established-law inquiry.
Levi Frasier is hoping the Supreme Court will take his case. So are we. This should clear things up. There’s not exactly a circuit split to resolve but there’s no top-level declaration establishing the right to record public officials. Some circuits have established this bright line but many have not, allowing officers to walk away from lawsuits despite knowing courts tend to find recording officers is covered under the First Amendment. But because there’s still a chance a court may find otherwise, officers can claim to be “reasonable” even if the courtroom odds are against them.
Whether it has been “clearly established” since at least 2014 that the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to record police officers carrying out their duties in public.
It also asks the court to declare that training officers receive should have bearing on “reasonableness” decisions when qualified immunity is on the line. Given the top court’s recent rollback of some of its expansion of qualified immunity, the second question is at least as timely as the first. As the petition points out, the Tenth Circuit ignored precedent and the officers’ own training to excuse them from this lawsuit.
Regardless of whether this Court might wish to reconsider qualified immunity as a whole, this case presents a timely opportunity to resolve two divisions of authority and to curb an unjustified distortion of the doctrine. At the time of the remarkable incident in this case, the respondent police officers’ training and departmental policies expressly advised them that the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to record officers performing their duties in public. All four federal court of appeals decisions on the issue said the same thing, consistent with this Court’s precedent. Yet the Tenth Circuit granted the respondents immunity for doing exactly what they had been told was unconstitutional. The Tenth Circuit reasoned (1) that the training and law enforcement policies are “irrelevant” to the qualified-immunity analysis and (2) that existing legal precedent was insufficient on its own to make the right here clearly established.
As Frasier notes, this question should never have been considered by the Tenth Circuit because there was nothing left unanswered according to the officers’ own testimony.
The qualified-immunity doctrine was created to prevent officers from being held unexpectedly liable based on constitutional rules they “neither knew nor should have known” existed. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 819 (1982). The officers here all testified that they knew they were violating petitioner’s rights. Their training, department policies, and precedent all underscored that reality.
Addressing this would resolve the circuit split the Tenth Circuit deepened by deciding officers’ training is somehow irrelevant to discussions of “reasonable” officers and their actions.
There’s no real split when it comes to the right to record police officers, but the Supreme Court itself hasn’t handed down precedent that affirms or establishes this right, so officers are free to pretend plenty of other courts haven’t reached that conclusion.
When the events here occurred, all four federal courts of appeals to have considered the constitutional issue had held that “there is a First Amendment right to record the police performing their duties in public spaces.” But, citing Wilson, the Tenth Circuit held that respondents were entitled to qualified immunity because the circuits have “disagreed regarding whether this purported First Amendment right to record [i]s clearly established.”
The petition says the Tenth Circuit misread this decision. That one extended qualified immunity when there was a circuit disagreement “on a constitutional question.” In all four of the circuit decisions handling the issue, there’s no split because each court reached the same conclusion on the underlying constitutional question. Because the courts reached conflicting conclusions on the extension of qualified immunity does not show that they disagree on the right to record police officers. And there’s plenty of other federal case law, along with any number of law enforcement policies, that make it clear recording officers is protected activity.
This reasoning is mistaken. For one thing, it improperly ignores the robust body of lower court jurisprudence that is directly on point. The clearly-established-law inquiry is not a game of divide-and-conquer. It is a holistic inquiry. See, e.g., Hope, 536 U.S. at 736-46. And here, the combination of precedent from this Court and the lower courts (plus the officers’ training and departmental policies, see supra at 16- 23) renders the law clearly established.
This is a case the Supreme Court should definitely take. The right to record police officers is assumed, thanks to a host of case law finding this act to be Constitutionally protected. But, as happened here, the lack of a firm resolution from the nation’s top court, along with the fact that only a handful of circuits have directly addressed this issue, makes it unclear enough that officers can ignore their own internal policies to hassle, deter, or arrest citizens who film them. This decision is at least a decade past due. And the longer it goes unresolved, the longer the sort of abuse witnessed in this case will continue to occur.