GOP Lawmakers Want to Make Recording Cops on Video Illegal

Recording the police could result in a misdemeanor charge under an Arizona bill advancing in the state Legislature. GOP lawmakers say the measure would keep police safe, but critics say it will make it more difficult to hold law enforcement accountable.

House Bill 2319 would make it illegal for members of the public to be within 8 feet of an officer without their consent to record. The proliferation of cellphone cameras in daily life has led to more scrutiny of law enforcement as citizens record interactions with officers. Notably, the deaths of George Floyd and Eric Garner by police have invigorated police reform movements.

Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican representing Fountain Hills, said he sponsored the bill because the increased presence of cameras is creating dangerous situations for police. The bill passed the Arizona House in a 31-28 vote Wednesday.

A former Port Authority of New York police officer, Kavanagh explained during a committee hearing that cameras may cause police to look over their shoulder, giving a suspect the opportunity to assault the officer or destroy evidence.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long upheld the First Amendment right of the public to record police interactions. Critics of the bill have raised concerns over its constitutional implications and how it would affect police accountability.

Videotaping Police Interaction
A bill in Arizona would restrict when members of the public can videotape police interactions. BrilliantEye

"When we should be holding police accountable, the AZ House of Representatives just passed a bill to make that even more difficult," Jared Keenan, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona, said in a tweet following the bill's passage. "#HB2319 criminalizes filming police in public in some instances-chilling the use of the public's most effective tool against police misconduct."

In an email, Kavanagh told Newsweek that the House has altered the bill to bring it in line with court precedence and to protect the rights of people to videotape police interactions.

For instance, Kavanagh said the bill originally called for a 15-foot buffer that has been reduced to 8 feet. He said this is in line with previous Supreme Court rulings.

Keenan told Newsweek in a follow-up email that the ability to record police interactions has become "an important tool to ensure police accountability and transparency" that's been upheld by federal courts. He said the bill would place "unnecessary burdens on ordinary citizens and grants police too much discretion."

In addition, people would still be able to record police during their own encounter with law enforcement as long as they're not being frisked or handcuffed. The bill also makes exceptions for enclosed structures and private property, in addition to allowing people in a vehicle to film a police interaction with the driver.

"These are reasonable concessions that balance the right of people to videotape the police with the safety of police officers who could be subjected to an attack by somebody coming up too close to them in an enforcement encounter or be distracted by such a person, which would allow suspects to attack the officer or destroy or discard evidence," Kavanagh said.

"So people can stay back, not to distract or threaten the cop by their presence, but still film which with today's cameras and zoom features on the phone is really easy to do," he said.

A first violation of the bill would be a petty offense. Further violations would be considered a class 3 misdemeanor.

Democratic state Representative Domingo DeGrazia said during a committee meeting that he remained opposed to the bill out of First Amendment concerns.

The bystander video of George Floyd's 2020 killing at hands of Minneapolis police, which sparked national calls for racial justice, would be illegal under the bill's provisions.

Stacey Champion told ABC 15 in Phoenix that she was issued a criminal citation after crossing a police line when intervening on behalf of a homeless man. But her charges were dropped after a video of the incident was posted to Twitter.

"I would probably be in jail or would have gone to jail, most certainly," she said.