The concept of citizen journalism isn’t very old. By some measures, it got its start in the late 1980s. But with the advent of still and video cameras in cellphones and the expansion of the internet, citizen journalism has taken off in a big way.
Whether here in Arkansas or elsewhere, videos of everyday events are more widely available than ever before and images of police encounters with citizens in protests, riots or just simple traffic stops are common. Are private citizens protected by the Constitution against police trying to prevent these activities? According to some experts, it depends. Police may move to confiscate devices and even put someone in custody. If there’s a question of wrongful arrest, an attorney can help fight for your rights.
The reason it is hard to provide a cut and dry answer to the question is that the laws of various states and decisions by various courts are sometimes in conflict. For example, there was the case of Arkansas Rep. John Walker of Little Rock. He was confronted by police as he was taking video of a traffic stop back in September and placed under arrest after he ignored police demands that he stop.
One legal observer who viewed video of the scene says it may be that police felt that Walker and another person with him breached what’s called the “zone of danger.” That’s the area police have an obligation and right to control when performing their duties. However, Little Rock’s police chief determined later that Walker had not violated that zone. Charges were dropped and Walker received a letter of apology.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled early this year that citizens don’t have any constitutional right to take video of police “absent some other expressive conduct.” Some take that to mean that you have to state specifically that you are taking the video out of legal concern of some sort.
That ruling isn’t in line with decisions from other federal courts around the country and it is being appealed. However, as long as legal questions remain the risk of arrest may remain.