With controversial interactions between police and suspected criminals leading to tragic results over the past few years, the question of whether police officers should use body cameras has gained a great deal of traction in Southern California and across the United States. Despite the debate over whether this should be required, the proliferation of camera based smartphones has enabled citizens to film police officers as they interact with the public.

But what rights do ordinary citizens have to film police in the course of their duties? After all, filming stops and arrests has been controversial as it pits an officer’s safety against a citizen’s right to free speech. 

In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in favor of a citizen who was charged with a crime after he filmed three Boston Police officers who were using excessive force in subduing another citizen. In ruling against the officers, and dismissing the charges, the court ruled that the right to film officers in a public space in the course of their public duties is a “basic, vital and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.”

The ability to provide video evidence of one’s interaction with police is especially important in protecting one’s credibility against false statements or gross misinterpretations by the police that commonly lead to criminal charges.

So does this mean that you should pull out your phone during your next traffic stop? It certainly depends on the situation. If you are subsequently charged with a crime, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help in protecting your rights.