• Sep 28th 2010 at 12:00AM
  • 269
Videotaping the police officer who pulled you over is l... Videotaping the police officer who pulled you over is legal, but is it a smart thing to do? (Alex Wong, Getty Images)

With the proliferation of video cameras in phones and MP3 players, capturing an event on video has never been easier.

The tools are now pocket sized, creating a new wrinkle in how we're interacting with everything around us, including the police. While cops started arming themselves with vehicle-mounted cameras over a decade ago, only recently have we seen citizen-police interaction from this new perspective.

Is it legal? The official answer is yes, but that doesn't mean it will win you any points with a police officer. Is it smart? Well, we'll get to that.

No Expectation Of Privacy
As for why it's legal to video your own traffic stop, the law focuses on the fact that it's happening in public. Joseph Ejbeh, a practicing attorney working in Rochester Hills, Michigan, explained the notion of assumed privacy.

"When you're in a public place, there's no expectation of privacy," Ejbeh said. "It's public. It's out in the open. Anything happening in public is fair game to video. That includes a traffic stop."

AOL Autos interviewed lawyers who explained to us that laws regulating the recording of video and audio in public places differ by state. Generally there are only narrow restrictions that can include, for example, when a videographer might be disturbing the peace or interfering with police activities.

Taking Matters Into His Own Hands
"No expectation of privacy" is exactly the phrase that ultimately led to Anthony Graber winning his a case brought by Maryland State Police. Graber was topped last year on his motorcycle for speeding. He was not stopped by a uniformed police officer in a cruiser, however. Instead, a plain-clothes off-duty officer saw the biker speeding and approached him with a gun. Graber's helmet camera recorded the incident.

Graber still has to deal with the speeding violations in an upcoming court date, but the videotaping charge is no longer valid.

Graber isn't alone in videotaping police during a traffic stop. When former Air Force flight officer Scott Colley drove through Lacrosse, Virginia on the night of January 15, 2010, he probably didn't realize how the events of that night would change his life and his view on law enforcement. Colley was pulled over for speeding on Highway 58, although he had his cruise control set at the posted speed limit of 50 MPH.

When the officer claimed he "paced" him and determined he was going much faster than the speed limit, Colley pulled out his videocamera to get a record of the conversation.

"Turn that off, sir," the officer said.

Despite the officer's initial protests, Colley kept filming, capturing 19 minutes in total. Eventually he posted his videos on YouTube and started a website called Highway 58 Speed Trap to expose the trap to other motorists.

"This stretch of Highway 58 is as notorious as the 'Bermuda Triangle,'" Colley wrote on his site. "But it's in our country, and now we have video evidence of the travesty! These Flip cameras are only 160 bucks. Never leave home without one."

In the end, his diligence paid off. The attorney set to argue the case on behalf of the city was made aware of Colley's efforts to dig into the "pacing" issue that he had videotaped. Only a short time after these tapes hit the internet, his case was thrown out. Oddly, Colley says that attorney admitted she hadn't even seen the video evidence, but nevertheless the case went into the circular file.

Police: On Video
So what do the police think of camera-wielding citizens? Most police departments do not have official policies on the issue. This makes an officer's response to a video camera up to the discretion of the individual officer.

"I've had several citizens video their traffic stops," said Los Angeles Police Department Officer Clarence Williams. "It hasn't been a problem for me except for when they shove the camera in my face. If they're respectful, everything goes fine.

"I recently stopped a young man who was making a video for a film class at school. He [videotaped] the entire process. I understood what he was doing and that it wasn't a dangerous or adversarial situation."

Others cite the need for officer safety. Cops don't like anything pointed directly at them, even if it's just a lens.

"I don't mind if a citizen has a video camera, but for me it becomes an issue of officer safety," said Detroit area Officer Frank Zielinski. "I don't like to have a citizen with something in their hands that they're pointing at me. Officers are trained to be very wary about what a person has in their hands. If we let our guard down for a second, we could miss seeing a weapon."

Zielinski explained that some cameras have been known to conceal guns.

"If somebody wants to video their traffic stop, that's totally within their rights," said Zielinkski. "The truth is that we're already on video. I've got a video camera running in the patrol car and I'm wired with a microphone. For a nominal fee, people can come to the station to request a video of their traffic stop, no problem. As for them holding their own camera, I'd rather they put it up on the dash so that their hands are empty."

While more municipalities are deploying in-car camera systems for their police departments, budget constraints have prevented major cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit from having cameras in all patrol cars.

Lawyers: On Video
"While it is legal, to hold a camera in anybody's face — including a police officer's — could be construed as really offensive," said attorney Matt Walton of Mt. Clemens, Michigan. "I'd recommend people think about what they're doing and consider the police officer's point of view before they whip out a video camera."

Walton brought up several points to ponder. While it is legal to record a traffic stop, the citizen must obey an officer's legitimate commands. If you are told to put the camera down, it's wise to follow that advice or you could be arrested for interfering with an officer in the line of duty.

Walton further notes that if you hope to use your video to beat your ticket, you must have recorded the ticketable offense to prove your point. Just recording the stop won't help. "What matters to the judge is whether you did what you're accused of, not what happened after," said Walton.

As a matter of act, videoing your traffic stop might make things worse for you. Walton opined, "Recording a police officer will not likely result in a 'Better slow it down and have a nice day' warning. The officer is likely to write you up for every possible infraction." The lawyer then referenced a recent incident in Michigan's Oakland Country where an officer gave a county executive a break during a traffic stop. The officer was subsequently disciplined for abusing his discretion when the details of the stop — and the breaks — were made public.

Another suburban Detroit officer agreed to talk to AOL on the condition of anonymity due to a pending lawsuit that tangentially involves this issue. This 33-year veteran confirmed Walton's assumption. He told AOL, "If somebody is going to come at me with an attitude and a camera, I'm going to do everything exactly by the book. They won't get one single break. I've had it happen a few times and because I'm being [videotaped], I professionally follow the letter of the law."

Remember: the letter of the law doesn't spell out giving breaks.

Making The Decision
"Over the years I've worked for government prosecutors and I've observed that police officers are overwhelmingly good people who follow the rules," said Walton. "But video can be used to document abuses that occur."

Should you or shouldn't you? That's a judgment call you're going to have to make. But if you do, know that your chances of receiving a speeding warning drop significantly.

If you do videotape the police publicly acting in an unlawful manner, it is not legal for those police officers to make you delete the files or confiscate your video device. If such a request or threat is made, you have a valid reason to make an official complaint against the officers involved.

Lights! Camera! Action!

I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.

    • 1 Second Ago
      • 7 Months Ago
      In the state of Oregon it is illegal for a civilain to record any audio. This gives the police an unfair advantage they can still recorded you.
        Brian Hawk Hawkins
        • 2 Months Ago

        Oregon statute 165.540(1)(c), Obtain or attempt to obtain the whole or any part of a conversation by means of any device, contrivance, machine or apparatus, whether electrical, mechanical, manual or otherwise, if not all participants in the conversation are specifically informed that their conversation is being obtained.

        Prior to recording the police at a traffic stop, you only need to inform them that you're going to record the conversation.

      • 7 Months Ago
      I wish I had an inside camera going all the time. With my speed posted on it! Twice in a year I have been stopped when not speeding. Good luck fighting the ticket anyway. The judge wanted to know if I had my speedometer calibrated. No. But if it was off by MORE than 20 mph, then I would get tickets all the time, and the road side speed displays would not ALWAYS match my speed. In one case, because the officer did not like my lane change from behind someone doing 25 in a 40, with no traffic behind me, he came out from where ever and tried so hard to catch up to me and NOT get stopped by the next signal intersection, he almost ran into me. Did you know in CA a police car can not get any closer to you than 3 car lengths. Wish I had an onboard camera!
      CAD Atlanta
      • 7 Months Ago
      From htp://gizmodo.com/5553765/are-cameras-the-new-guns ---In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer. Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists. The legal justification for arresting the "shooter" rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where "no expectation of privacy exists" (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized. Massachusetts attorney June Jensen represented Simon Glik who was arrested for such a recording. She explained, "[T]he statute has been misconstrued by Boston police. You could go to the Boston Common and snap pictures and record if you want." Legal scholar and professor Jonathan Turley agrees, "The police are basing this claim on a ridiculous reading of the two-party consent surveillance law - requiring all parties to consent to being taped. I have written in the area of surveillance law and can say that this is utter nonsense." The courts, however, disagree. A few weeks ago, an Illinois judge rejected a motion to dismiss an eavesdropping charge against Christopher Drew, ************ his own arrest for selling one-dollar artwork on the streets of Chicago. Although the misdemeanor charges of not having a peddler's license and peddling in a prohibited area were dropped, Drew is being prosecuted for illegal recording, a Class I felony punishable by 4 to 15 years in prison. In 2001, when Michael Hyde was arrested for criminally violating the state's electronic surveillance law - aka recording a police encounter - the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld his conviction 4-2. In dissent, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall stated, "Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police. Their role cannot be performed if citizens must fear criminal reprisals…." (Note: In some states it is the audio alone that makes the recording illegal.) The selection of "shooters" targeted for prosecution do, indeed, suggest a pattern of either reprisal or an attempt to intimidate. Glik captured a police action on his cellphone to document what he considered to be excessive force. He was not only arrested, his phone was also seized. On his website Drew wrote, "Myself and three other artists who documented my actions tried for two months to get the police to arrest me for selling art downtown so we could test the Chicago peddlers license law. The police hesitated for two months because they knew it would mean a federal court case. With this felony charge they are trying to avoid this test and ruin me financially and stain my credibility." Hyde used his recording to file a harassment complaint against the police. After doing so, he was criminally charged. In short, recordings that are flattering to the police - an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog - will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. The only people who seem prone to prosecution are those who embarrass or confront the police, or who somehow challenge the law. If true, then the prosecutions are a form of social control to discourage criticism of the police or simple dissent. A recent arrest in Maryland is both typical and disturbing. On March 5, 24-year-old Anthony John Graber III's motorcycle was pulled over for speeding. He is currently facing criminal charges for a video he recorded on his helmet-mounted camera during the traffic stop. The case is disturbing because: 1) Graber was not arrested immediately. Ten days after the encounter, he posted some of he material to YouTube, and it embarrassed Trooper J. D. Uhler. The trooper, who was in plainclothes and an unmarked car, jumped out waving a gun and screaming. Only later did Uhler identify himself as a police officer. When the YouTube video was discovered the police got a warrant against Graber, searched his parents' house (where he presumably lives), seized equipment, and charged him with a violation of wiretapping law. 2) Baltimore criminal defense attorney Steven D. Silverman said he had never heard of the Maryland wiretap law being used in this manner. In other words, Maryland has joined the expanding trend of criminalizing the act of recording police abuse. Silverman surmises, "It's more [about] ‘contempt of cop' than the violation of the wiretapping law." 3) Police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley is defending the pursuit of charges against Graber, denying that it is "some capricious retribution" and citing as justification the particularly egregious nature of Graber's traffic offenses. Oddly, however, the offenses were not so egregious as to cause his arrest before the video appeared. Almost without exception, police officials have staunchly supported the arresting officers. This argues strongly against the idea that some rogue officers are overreacting or that a few cops have something to hide. "Arrest those ********** the police" appears to be official policy, and it's backed by the courts. Carlos Miller at the Photography Is Not A Crime website offers an explanation: "For the second time in less than a month, a police officer was convicted from evidence obtained from a videotape. The first officer to be convicted was New York City Police Officer Patrick Pogan, who would never have stood trial had it not been for a video posted on Youtube showing him body slamming a bicyclist before charging him with assault on an officer. The second officer to be convicted was Ottawa Hills (Ohio) Police Officer Thomas White, who shot a motorcyclist in the back after a traffic stop, permanently paralyzing the 24-year-old man." When the police act as though cameras were the equivalent of guns pointed at them, there is a sense in which they are correct. Cameras have become the most effective weapon that ordinary people have to protect against and to expose police abuse. And the police want it to stop. Happily, even as the practice of arresting "shooters" expands, there are signs of effective backlash. At least one Pennsylvania jurisdiction has reaffirmed the right to video in public places. As part of a settlement with ACLU attorneys *************** an arrested "shooter," the police in Spring City and East Vincent Township adopted a written policy allowing the recording of on-duty policemen. As journalist Radley Balko declares, "State legislatures should consider passing laws explicitly making it legal to record on-duty law enforcement officials." Wendy McElroy is the author of several books on anarchism and feminism. She maintains the iconoclastic website ifeminists.net as well as an active blog at wendymcelroy.com.
      CAD Atlanta
      • 7 Months Ago
      Reverse intimidation really pisses off the cops. They go after "easy targets" such as speeders, no turn signal users, no complete stops, improper lane changes but do not have the guts to go into the drug and crime infested neighborhoods and clean them up. They want all the SWAT gear, the fully automatic weapons, the tear gas, the attack dogs and they put it in the budget and we the voters let the county/city commissioners let them have it. Then the use these things on the decent people. Sure speeding, not using turn signals, not coming to a complete stop and improper lane changes are illegal but they are only "infractions" and not crimes. They carry a fine and not jail time, nor do they get our kids hooked on drugs. I think video taping a traffic stop is good insurance, especially when your insurance company decides to increase your rates, you can say, wait a minute, lets see what actually happened, or worse, the cop writes you up for something and he uses foul language against you while he has you stopped. You ladies need to be mindful of some of these cops who stop you just to get their jollies. Remember, little boys that get beat up in school - grow up to be cops. Little boys that lie - grow up to be weathermen.
      • 7 Months Ago
      protecting officers safety--yes --recording for citizens safety --yes
      • 7 Months Ago
      Where I live, if someone forced you off the road, then got out of their vehicle sans badge or uniform while weilding a pistol, they would be shot dead on the spot.
      • 7 Months Ago
      you can never trust a cop there scared of a video camara might have a gun the only person with a gun all the time is the cops thay lie cheat steal you no the blue wall they revenue to get on welfair or a pension
      • 7 Months Ago
      Sounds like a guy that was guilty of speeding! This is the kind of guy that would call the police if he felt someone was doing him wrong.
      • 7 Months Ago
      Most good police officers do not like or want cameras in their cars. I did a 25 year police career and not once did i jam myself up that i needed a camera to bail me out. If you do a honest job the public respects what you do. For the citizen that want to mess with us or lie about what happened the PD will back you up because of your prior history and reputation. The shady cops need the cameras because they are always treading on the line with their calls.
      • 7 Months Ago
      I love some of the comments on here against the cops. You people vote in politicians every election who make up these (laws) motor vehicle infractions and then blame the cop when they enforce it. It is the same crap over and over and over......and you people fall for the same BS from politicians? Let's see a person speeds down a street or runs a red light and kills someone. The politician on the local news channel: "We are going to crack down on these offenses!! The average person: "Yeah it's about time they cracked down, I'm so glad I voted for him or her!". Then the cop pulls you over for violating that minor infraction of running a red light and he's the a$$hole? Idiots!!
      • 7 Months Ago
      I used to drive with a color mini camera with sound attached to my windshield especially when I drove a taxicab in New York City. After the camera was installed, I never had a police office stop me. I prayed they would because I had a VCR recording every thing the camera captured. It also recorded the time and the radio was played to show that the time shown and the time that the radio gave was the same.. If the camera is not a color camera, at night time one could not determine which light is red or green.
      • 7 Months Ago
      The same thing hapened to me while driving in Colorado, driving on I-25,a couple of years back! But I still think that it is a bad idea, even though, he the driver, had a right to do it! One, the driver seems to be full of himself,trying to make the point that he cannot be wrong. Two, he is occupying the cops time for what seems like 30 or more minutes, time which is badly needed to catch the real speeders,or drunk drivers. The driver arguing, has no right whatsoever to occupy the Cops time, costing taxpayers money,(all of our money) and possibly interfering with the cop doing his duty, which as above mentioned, he could be arrested for. that's what the courts are there for.I went to court,and I beat it. As far as the Cop is concerned, I think it is time for him to retire, (at 61 years old) In his quest to justify his actions, he got personal with the driver, and let the driver distract him from doing his duty. He told him all kinds of anectotes, which had no relevance to the issue at hand .
    • Load More Comments