Do You Have a Constitutional Right to Record and Livestream a Police Stop? A Federal Court Will Decide

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A federal appeals court heard arguments last week over the issue of whether police officers have the right to prevent car passengers from livestreaming traffic stops. 

Dijon Sharpe was in a car that was pulled over in Winterville, North Carolina in 2018.  Mr. Sharpe proceeded to film the police interaction and livestream it on Facebook Live.  In his complaint, he identifies himself as an African-American male “who records and broadcasts his interactions with law enforcement for his own protection.” Mr. Sharpe had previously been beaten by police officers during a traffic stop and decided that when he was stopped on the future, he would record and livestream the event.

Mr. Sharpe claims that when an officer saw he was livestreaming, the officer grabbed him and attempted to take his phone, and another officer told him he would be arrested if he livestreamed police interactions in the future.  Mr. Sharpe claims that these officers violated his First Amendment right to gather and share information.  However, the district court disagreed, holding that it was not clearly established that there exists a constitutional right for a passenger in a stopped vehicle to record and livestream a police interaction.

Mr. Sharpe appealed this decision, arguing that it was well-established that people have a First Amendment right to record police officers carrying out their duties and to disseminate those recordings in real time. 

During the arguments on appeal, at least one judge on the three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit appeared to express his belief that the issue in this case was not Mr. Sharpe’s rights under the First Amendment, but rather the officer’s rights under the Fourth Amendment to maintain control of the circumstances during a lawful traffic stop.  

Another lawyer, representing the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, had filed an earlier motion to intervene in the case and participate in the arguments.  He stated that his group believes that recording officers should be allowed, but that livestreaming should not, citing fears that livestreaming might lead to local gang members attacking the police.  However, this approach has been criticized as being confusing and leaving officers in a difficult position of having to determine whether a person is livestreaming or merely recording.

The appeals court is in the process of deciding the issue now and will eventually issue its opinion, likely in several months.





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