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New Arizona law criminalizes filming police from less than 8 feet away

A person records the Seattle police bike patrol in August 2016. (iStock)
3 min

A new Arizona law will make it illegal to film law enforcement encounters from closer than 8 feet away except in certain circumstances, such as when the person recording is the one being questioned by the authorities.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed the bill into law on Wednesday, which will make it a misdemeanor offense to record police activity at close range after officers have issued a verbal warning.

Republican state Rep. John Kavanagh, who sponsored the bill, wrote in an op-ed in the Arizona Republic that the purpose is to protect against distractions and potential harm, particularly when police are involved in violent encounters. He wrote that police told him groups “hostile” to officers follow them around, filming 1 to 2 feet behind them, which Kavanagh called “a dangerous practice that can end in tragedy.”

“I can think of no reason why any responsible person would need to come closer than 8 feet to a police officer engaged in a hostile or potentially hostile encounter. Such an approach is unreasonable, unnecessary and unsafe, and should be made illegal,” Kavanagh wrote in the op-ed.

Are the police trying to stop you from taking that cellphone video? Check your First Amendment rights.

In an era where cellphone cameras have proved to be instrumental in capturing police encounters and holding law enforcement officers accountable, critics say the law limits people’s right to record in public places.

“A blanket restriction is a violation of the First Amendment,” Stephen D. Solomon, director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University who teaches First Amendment law, told The Washington Post.

More than 60 percent of the U.S. population lives in states — including Arizona — in which federal appeals courts have recognized the First Amendment right to record police officers performing their duties in public, according to a citizen’s guide to recording police from NYU’s First Amendment Watch.

Solomon, editor of the online news site, said it is not an absolute right. There are some limitations, such as reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, that courts can impose to keep people from interfering with police. But there is no set distance recognized by the federal courts because it depends on the situation, he said.

“Who’s to say that 8 feet is the appropriate distance? It might be under some circumstances, but in other circumstances, not,” he said, questioning how such a law would be enforced amid a street demonstration where crowds of people with cellphones are surrounded by law enforcement officers.

Solomon said the new law is going to have a “chilling effect.”

“If you know the limit is 8 feet, you might stay 15 or 20 feet away, or you may not record at all, because you’re concerned police are going to take you into custody,” he said.

You have the right to film police. Here’s how to do it effectively — and safely.

The law will allow for some exceptions to the 8-foot rule, with caveats. For instance, the bill states that when a police encounter is occurring in an enclosed area on private property, a person who is authorized to be there may record closer than 8 feet — “unless a law enforcement officer determines that the person is interfering in the law enforcement activity” or it is unsafe. In the bill, “law enforcement activity” is defined as an officer questioning a suspicious person, an officer conducting an arrest or an officer handling a situation involving “an emotionally disturbed or disorderly person.”

In addition, a person who is being questioned may record within 8 feet of the law enforcement officer and, during a traffic stop, the occupants of the vehicle may also record the encounter — as long as no one is interfering with “lawful police actions,” such as searching, handcuffing or conducting a field sobriety test.

The law will go into effect in September.