In an unusual story that is now receiving widespread attention, a man was arrested by police after he refused to stop filming them.  Adam Pringle was being given a citation for smoking a cigarette on the San Diego’s Mission Bay Boardwalk.  As the officer finished writing the citation, he noticed that Pringle was filming him with a cell phone camera (see video below) and an argument ensued.

In the following exchange, the officer tells Pringle to put away the phone because cell phones can be turned into weapons.

“Put that away please?” the officer asks.

“No thank you,” Pringle replies. “I am in a public place. I have the right to film here.”

“No actually….” the officer starts to say, moving closer to Pringle, before Pringle repeats, “I have the right to film this. I am in a public spot.”

“Cell phones can be converted into weapons,” the officer says.

“This is not a weapon,” Pringle says. “There is no way this could be a weapon.”

“Look it up online,” the officer says.

A physical altercation ensued and Pringle was arrested for obstruction of justice and spent the night in jail.  Pringle also claims that he suffered a cut when being arrested by officers.

There are two issues here.  One is whether a citizen has the right to videotape police officers during arrests and other public actions.  The answer, according to most courts, is yes.  One local law professor, Alex Simpson, said that “officers should welcome the technology and scrutiny as a way to protect themselves from lawsuits and use for future prosecution. Theoretically, the officer are doing everything by the book and doing everything with proper procedures. They should feel totally comfortable begin videotaped,” he said.”

The second issue is the communication between the officers and the persons being accused.  A later conversation between the officer and Pringle’s friends provides some context for the officer’s actions.  The officer says that he would have given Pringle’s phone back after examining it to see if it was a weapon or not.   If you listen to the exchange, this reasoning was never explained to Pringle.  However, the officer assumes that a person will trust the officer not to confiscate the cellphone or erase the footage.  In San Diego, there is a lawsuit as to whether Border Agents are allowed to approach bystanders and delete cellphone pictures and footage taken near U.S. points of entry.  If the officer had explained his actions more clearly, the situation may not have escalated.

This case shows how a relatively minor incident (illegally smoking on the beach) can turn into a situation that got out of control.  In another set of circumstances, this could lead to someone being wrongfully accused.  This case also shows how resistant police are to videotaping.  Innocence projects that seek mandatory recording of interrogations know this feeling all too well.  Professor Simpson is right – the police can use video as protection.  In states with recording of interrogations, claims of police abuse have gone down.  Recording of police actions is needed and can benefit the police as well as the accused.