Arizona state senator John Kavanagh introduced legislation last week that would effectively prohibit civilians from making a “video recording of law enforcement activity”, within 20 feet of a police officer.
The law would make the offense a class three misdemeanor if the person recording does not stop after a verbal warning.
Sen. Kavanagh, a former New York City police officer, says that the purpose of the bill is to promote “safety” for both law enforcement personnel and civilians.
“The reason [for the law] being when you get closer, you become a distraction”, Kavanagh explained. “The officer doesn’t know you’re a threat, and that jeopardizes everybody’s safety”.
Although the proposed law does have practical merit, law scholars and civil liberty advocates alike see it as outright unconstitutional.
Dan Pochoda, legal director for the Arizona ACLU, points out that courts nationwide have ruled in favor of the “right to photograph and videotape law enforcement practices in public . . . as long as you’re not interfering with activity.”
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that a Massachusetts law which made it illegal to protest within 35 feet of an abortion clinic was unconstitutional; and in 2015, a Texas state congressman who proposed a law restricting video recording police, similar to Sen. Kavanagh’s, ended up withdrawing it from consideration due to public complaints.
Sen. Kavanagh is already feeling the heat from media and law advocates apparently, as the law enforcement veteran has already promised to amend his bill so that the legislation narrows the restriction to third-party spectators.
Kavanagh is not backing down from his contention that SB 1054 is consistent with the First Amendment, however.
“That’s the reason it is constitutional,” Kavanagh told the Guardian. “Because our constitution says you can limit certain rights if the limit is reasonable.”
Many in the law enforcement community may see SB 1054 as a reaction to cases over the past year and a half, such as those involving Eric Garner (New York), Walter Scott (South Carolina), and Kianga Mwamba (Baltimore), in which police brutality was caught on video.
In 2015, the Arizona state legislature passed a law requiring law enforcement agencies to withhold the identities of police officers involved in shootings for two months. The bill was ultimately vetoed by Republican Governor Doug Ducey after local police chiefs in the state protested that the law would harm community relations.
[The Guardian] [Phoenix New Times] [New York Times]