1st Circuit Upholds Citizen Right to Record Police on Cellphone

Recently the 1st Circuit court of Appeals ruled that a citizen who “openly” recorded police using his cell phone had the right to do so and that his arrest was improper for violating the states wiretap statute in GLIK v. CUNNIFFE No. 10–1764 1st circuit (2011).

The case is a pretty ugly one and covered the following issues:

A. Immunity from Glik’s First Amendment Claim
1. Were Glik’s First Amendment Rights Violated? 2. Was the Right to Film Clearly Established?

B. Immunity from Glik’s Fourth Amendment Claim
1. Were Glik’s Fourth Amendment Rights Violated? 2. Was the Absence of Probable Cause Clearly Established Under the Circumstances?

From a practical everyday standpoint for officers on the street there is one line that is most important, “Glik’s recording was not “secret” within the meaning of Massachusetts’s wiretap statute, and therefore the officers lacked probable cause to arrest him.” This encapsulates the entire case and is a pretty big game changer. The court goes on to discuss at length the changes ongoing in society and the advent of a less private world that includes blogging, facebook, twitter, and a more transparent society. Basically the court gives very little wiggle room for finding any silver lining or answer from the law enforcement community short of either living with the results or appealing to the Supreme Court. I’ve included the majority of the decision for those looking for the courts rationale in certain areas.

The court in reviewing the facts stated “Simon Glik was arrested for using his cell phone’s digital video camera to film several police officers arresting a young man on the Boston Common. The charges against Glik, which included violation of Massachusetts’s wiretap statute and two other state-law offenses, were subsequently judged baseless and were dismissed. Glik then brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that his arrest for filming the officers constituted a violation of his rights under the First and Fourth Amendments. We conclude, based on the facts alleged, that Glik was exercising clearly-established First Amendment rights in filming the officers in a public space, and that his clearly-established Fourth Amendment rights were violated by his arrest without probable cause. We therefore affirm.

A. Immunity from Glik’s First Amendment Claim
1. Were Glik’s First Amendment Rights Violated?
The First Amendment issue here is, as the parties frame it, fairly narrow: is there a constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public? Basic First Amendment principles, along with case law from this and other circuits, answer that question unambiguously in the affirmative.
It is firmly established that the First Amendment’s aegis extends further than the text’s proscription on laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information. As the Supreme Court has observed, “the First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.” First Nat’l Bank v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783 (1978); see also Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 564 (1969) (“It is ․ well established that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas.”). An important corollary to this interest in protecting the stock of public information is that “[t]here is an undoubted right to gather news ‘from any source by means within the law.’ “ Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1, 11 (1978) (quoting Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 681–82 (1972)).

The filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these principles. Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting “the free discussion of governmental affairs.” Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966). Moreover, as the Court has noted, “[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because ‘[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.’ “ First Nat’l Bank, 435 U.S. at 777 n. 11 (alteration in original) (quoting Thomas Emerson, Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment 9 (1966)). This is particularly true of law enforcement officials, who are granted substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties. Cf. Gentile v. State Bar of Nev., 501 U.S. 1030, 1035–36 (1991) (observing that “[t]he public has an interest in [the] responsible exercise” of the discretion granted police and prosecutors). Ensuring the public’s right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses, see id. at 1034–35 (recognizing a core First Amendment interest in “the dissemination of information relating to alleged governmental misconduct”), but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally, see Press–Enter. Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1, 8 (1986) (noting that “many governmental processes operate best under public scrutiny”).

In line with these principles, we have previously recognized that the videotaping of public officials is an exercise of First Amendment liberties. In Iacobucci v. Boulter, 193 F.3d 14 (1st Cir.1999), a local journalist brought a § 1983 claim arising from his arrest in the course of filming officials in the hallway outside a public meeting of a historic district commission. The commissioners had objected to the plaintiff’s filming. Id. at 18. When the plaintiff refused to desist, a police officer on the scene arrested him for disorderly conduct. Id. The charges were later dismissed. Id. Although the plaintiff’s subsequent § 1983 suit against the arresting police officer was grounded largely in the Fourth Amendment and did not include a First Amendment claim, we explicitly noted, in rejecting the officer’s appeal from a denial of qualified immunity, that because the plaintiff’s journalistic activities “were peaceful, not performed in derogation of any law, and done in the exercise of his First Amendment rights, [the officer] lacked the authority to stop them.” Id. at 25 (emphasis added).

Our recognition that the First Amendment protects the filming of government officials in public spaces accords with the decisions of numerous circuit and district courts. See, e.g., Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332, 1333 (11th Cir.2000) (“The First Amendment protects the right to gather information about what public officials do on public property, and specifically, a right to record matters of public interest.”); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F .3d 436, 439 (9th Cir.1995) (recognizing a “First Amendment right to film matters of public interest”); Demarest v. Athol/Orange Cmty. Television, Inc., 188 F.Supp.2d 82, 94–95 (D.Mass.2002) (finding it “highly probable” that filming of a public official on street outside his home by contributors to public access cable show was protected by the First Amendment, and noting that, “[a]t base, plaintiffs had a constitutionally protected right to record matters of public interest”); Channel 10, Inc. v. Gunnarson, 337 F.Supp. 634, 638 (D.Minn.1972) (holding that police interference with television newsman’s filming of crime scene and seizure of video camera constituted unlawful prior restraint under First Amendment); cf. Schnell v. City of Chi., 407 F.2d 1084, 1085 (7th Cir.1969) (reversing dismissal for failure to state a claim of suit claiming police interference with news reporters and photographers’ “constitutional right to gather and report news, and to photograph news events” under the First Amendment (internal quotation mark omitted)), overruled on other grounds by City of Kenosha v. Bruno, 412 U.S. 507 (1973); Connell v. Town of Hudson, 733 F.Supp. 465, 471–72 (D.N.H.1990) (denying qualified immunity from First Amendment claim to police chief who prevented freelance photographer from taking pictures of car accident).

It is of no significance that the present case, unlike Iacobucci and many of those cited above, involves a private individual, and not a reporter, gathering information about public officials. The First Amendment right to gather news is, as the Court has often noted, not one that inures solely to the benefit of the news media; rather, the public’s right of access to information is coextensive with that of the press. Houchins, 438 U.S. at 16 (Stewart, J., concurring) (noting that the Constitution “assure[s] the public and the press equal access once government has opened its doors”); Branzburg, 408 U.S. at 684 (“[T]he First Amendment does not guarantee the press a constitutional right of special access to information not available to the public generally.”). Indeed, there are several cases involving private individuals among the decisions from other courts recognizing the First Amendment right to film. See, e.g., Smith, 212 F.3d 1332; Robinson v. Fetterman, 378 F.Supp.2d 534 (E.D.Pa.2005) (holding that arrest of individual filming police activities from private property violated First Amendment); Cirelli v. Town of Johnston Sch. Dist., 897 F.Supp. 663 (D.R.I.1995) (holding that teacher had a right under the First Amendment to videotape potentially hazardous working conditions at school, which were a matter of public concern).

Moreover, changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw. The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders with a ready cell phone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew, and news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.

To be sure, the right to film is not without limitations. It may be subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. See Smith, 212 F.3d at 1333. We have no occasion to explore those limitations here, however. On the facts alleged in the complaint, Glik’s exercise of his First Amendment rights fell well within the bounds of the Constitution’s protections. Glik filmed the defendant police officers in the Boston Common, the oldest city park in the United States and the apotheosis of a public forum. In such traditional public spaces, the rights of the state to limit the exercise of First Amendment activity are “sharply circumscribed.” Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37, 45 (1983). Moreover, as in Iacobucci, the complaint indicates that Glik “filmed [the officers] from a comfortable remove” and “neither spoke to nor molested them in any way” (except in directly responding to the officers when they addressed him). 193 F .3d at 25. Such peaceful recording of an arrest in a public space that does not interfere with the police officers’ performance of their duties is not reasonably subject to limitation.
In our society, police officers are expected to endure significant burdens caused by citizens’ exercise of their First Amendment rights. See City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461 (1987) (“[T]he First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.”). Indeed, “[t]he freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” Id. at 462–63. The same restraint demanded of law enforcement officers in the face of “provocative and challenging” speech, id. at 461 (quoting Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949)), must be expected when they are merely the subject of videotaping that memorializes, without impairing, their work in public spaces.

2. Was the Right to Film Clearly Established?
Though the “clearly established” inquiry does “not require a case directly on point,” al-Kidd, 131 S.Ct. at 2083, we have such a case in Iacobucci. What is particularly notable about Iacobucci is the brevity of the First Amendment discussion, a characteristic found in other circuit opinions that have recognized a right to film government officials or matters of public interest in public space. See Smith, 212 F.3d at 1333; Fordyce, 55 F .3d at 439. This terseness implicitly speaks to the fundamental and virtually self-evident nature of the First Amendment’s protections in this area. Cf. Lee v. Gregory, 363 F.3d 931, 936 (9th Cir.2004) (noting that some constitutional violations are “self-evident” and do not require particularized case law to substantiate them). We thus have no trouble concluding that “the state of the law at the time of the alleged violation gave the defendant[s] fair warning that [their] particular conduct was unconstitutional.” Maldonado, 568 F.3d at 269.

We find unavailing the two cases principally relied upon by the appellants in arguing that the First Amendment right to film was not clearly established at the time of the arrest, both of which were decided after Glik’s arrest. The first is an unpublished per curiam opinion from the Fourth Circuit that summarily concludes, with no discussion of the facts or relevant law, that the “right to record police activities on public property was not clearly established in this circuit at the time of the alleged conduct.” Szymecki v. Houck, 353 F. App’x 852 (4th Cir.2009). Such unpublished opinions “have no precedential force,” Merrimac Paper Co. v. Harrison (In re Merrimac Paper Co.), 420 F.3d 53, 60 (1st Cir.2005); see also United States v. King, 628 F.3d 693, 700 n. 3 (4th Cir.2011) (same), and the absence of substantive discussion deprives Szymecki of any marginal persuasive value it might otherwise have had.

The second case appellants cite is a Third Circuit opinion finding the right to film not clearly established in the context of a traffic stop, characterized as an “inherently dangerous situation[ ].” Kelly v. Borough of Carlisle, 622 F.3d 248, 262 (3d Cir.2010). Kelly is clearly distinguishable on its facts; a traffic stop is worlds apart from an arrest on the Boston Common in the circumstances alleged.

Nonetheless, even if these cases were to establish a circuit split with respect to the clarity of the First Amendment’s protections in the situation before us, that split would not undermine our conclusion that the right violated by appellants was clearly established in this circuit at the time of Glik’s arrest. See Newman v. Massachusetts, 884 F.2d 19, 25 (1st Cir.1989) (finding constitutional right clearly established in the First Circuit despite “recogni[tion] that the courts are not yet unanimous on whether this ․ right exists”).

In summary, though not unqualified, a citizen’s right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment. Accordingly, we hold that the district court did not err in denying qualified immunity to the appellants on Glik’s First Amendment claim.

B. Immunity from Glik’s Fourth Amendment Claim
1. Were Glik’s Fourth Amendment Rights Violated?
The existence of a Fourth Amendment violation on the facts alleged here turns on a question of Massachusetts law. The Fourth Amendment requires that an arrest be grounded in probable cause, Martínez–Rodríguez v. Guevara, 597 F.3d 414, 420 (1st Cir.2010), i.e., that, “at the time of the arrest, the ‘facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge ․ [were] sufficient to warrant a prudent person, or one of reasonable caution, in believing, in the circumstances shown, that the suspect [had] committed, [was] committing, or [was] about to commit an offense,’ “ Holder v. Town of Sandown, 585 F.3d 500, 504 (1st Cir.2009) (quoting Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31, 37 (1979)). The thrust of Glik’s Fourth Amendment claim is that the appellants lacked any such probable cause that Glik had violated state law at the time of arrest. The appellants argue, to the contrary, that the allegations of the complaint establish probable cause that Glik violated Massachusetts’s wiretap statute.4 Upon examination of the statute and relevant case law from Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court, we disagree.

Massachusetts’s wiretap statute makes it a crime to “willfully commit[ ] an interception ․ of any wire or oral communication.” Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 99(C)(1). As the Supreme Judicial Court has noted, this statute sweeps more broadly than comparable laws in other jurisdictions, in that its prohibition is not restricted to the recording of communications that are made with a reasonable expectation of privacy. See Commonwealth v. Hyde, 750 N.E.2d 963, 967–68 & n. 5 (Mass.2001).5 The critical limiting term in the statute is “interception,” defined to mean “to secretly hear, secretly record, or aid another to secretly hear or secretly record the contents of any wire or oral communication through the use of any intercepting device by any person other than a person given prior authority by all parties to such communication.” Id. § 99(B)(4).

The relevant question, then, is whether, on the facts alleged in the complaint, Glik “secretly” videotaped the appellant officers.6 The Supreme Judicial Court has held that a recording is “secret” unless the subject has “actual knowledge” of the fact of recording. Commonwealth v. Jackson, 349 N.E.2d 337, 340 (Mass.1976). It has also made clear that “actual knowledge” can be proven by “objective manifestations of knowledge” to “avoid the problems involved in speculating as to the [subject’s] subjective state of mind.” Id. at 340–41. Moreover, the court has noted that “actual knowledge” does not require that there be any explicit acknowledgment of or reference to the fact of the recording. Id. at 340 (“[T]he person recording the conversation [need not] confirm the [subject’s] apparent awareness by acknowledging the fact of the intercepting device.”). Thus, in Hyde, where the defendant was convicted of a wiretap violation for secretly recording a traffic stop, the Supreme Judicial Court explained that “the recording would not have been secret” within the meaning of the statute if the defendant had simply “held the tape recorder in plain sight.” 750 N.E.2d at 971. The unmistakable logic of Hyde, building on Jackson, is that the secrecy inquiry turns on notice, i.e., whether, based on objective indicators, such as the presence of a recording device in plain view, one can infer that the subject was aware that she might be recorded.

Commonwealth v. Rivera, 833 N.E.2d 1113 (Mass.2005), forcefully illustrates this point. There, a criminal defendant argued for suppression under the wiretap statute of an audio recording by a convenience store security camera, on the theory that he lacked actual knowledge that the security cameras recorded audio as well as video. Although the case was resolved on other grounds, four of the seven justices of the Supreme Judicial Court concurred to note that the defendant’s unawareness of the audio recording capabilities of the security cameras did not render the recordings “secret” under the wiretap statute where the cameras were in plain sight. Id. at 1125 (Cowin, J., concurring in part) (“That the defendant did not know the camera also included an audio component does not convert this otherwise open recording into the type of ‘secret’ interception prohibited by the Massachusetts wiretap statute.”); id. at 1130 (Cordy, J., concurring) (“Just because a robber with a gun may not realize that the surveillance camera pointed directly at him is recording both his image and his voice does not ․ make the recording a ‘secret’ one within the meaning and intent of the statute.”).
The complaint alleges that Glik “openly record[ed] the police officers” with his cell phone, and further that “the police officers admitted Mr. Glik was publicly and openly recording them.” On its face, this conduct falls plainly outside the type of clandestine recording targeted by the wiretap statute. See Jackson, 349 N.E.2d at 339 (“While we recognize that [the wiretap statute] is designed to control the use of electronic surveillance devices by private individuals because of the serious threat they pose to ‘the privacy of all citizens,’ (§ 99A), it is clear that the Legislature intended that the statutory restrictions be applicable only to the secret use of such devices.” (emphasis added)). Moreover, not only does Hyde (along with the Rivera concurrences) indicate that the use of a recording device in “plain sight,” as here, constitutes adequate objective evidence of actual knowledge of the recording, but here the police officers made clear through their conduct that they knew Glik was recording them. Specifically, one of the police officers approached Glik after the suspect had been handcuffed and told him, “I think you have taken enough pictures.”
The officers protest that Glik’s use of a cell phone was insufficient to put them on notice of the recording. They note that a cell phone, unlike the tape recorder used in Hyde, has numerous discrete functions, such as text messaging, internet browsing, video gaming, and photography, and thus the fact of an individual holding out a cell phone in front of his body is of indeterminate significance. The argument suffers from factual as well as legal flaws. The allegations of the complaint indicate that the officers were cognizant of Glik’s surveillance, knew that Glik was using his phone to record them in some fashion, and were aware, based on their asking Glik whether he was recording audio, that cell phones may have sound recording capabilities. The fact that a cell phone may have other functions is thus irrelevant to the question of whether Glik’s recording was “secret.”

Appellants’ argument reduces to the contention that, though they were aware of Glik’s recording, they initially thought Glik was taking pictures of them rather than recording video and audio. This is almost precisely the argument rejected by the four concurring justices in Rivera, and it runs directly contrary to the logic of Hyde’s “plain view” discussion. Taking the appellants’ argument to its logical end, the Hyde defendant’s recording would have escaped a wiretap offense only if he had held his tape recorder in plain view and there was affirmative evidence that the officers were aware that the device was switched on and recording audio. To the contrary, Hyde makes the point that the use in plain view of a device commonly known to record audio is, on its own, sufficient evidence from which to infer the subjects’ actual knowledge of the recording. See 750 N.E.2d at 971 (noting that recording would not have been secret under the statute if “the defendant had simply informed the police of his intention to tape record the encounter, or even held the tape recorder in plain sight” (emphasis added)). Simply put, a straightforward reading of the statute and case law cannot support the suggestion that a recording made with a device known to record audio and held in plain view is “secret.”

We thus conclude, on the facts of the complaint, that Glik’s recording was not “secret” within the meaning of Massachusetts’s wiretap statute, and therefore the officers lacked probable cause to arrest him. Accordingly, the complaint makes out a violation of Glik’s Fourth Amendment rights.
2. Was the Absence of Probable Cause Clearly Established Under the Circumstances?
Appellants contend that, regardless of whether Glik’s conduct in fact violated the wiretap law, the state of the law was such that a reasonable officer would not have understood that arresting Glik for a wiretap offense under the circumstances alleged in the complaint would violate Glik’s Fourth Amendment rights. They point out, rightly, that a lesser showing is required for an officer to be entitled to qualified immunity from a Fourth Amendment claim based on a warrantless arrest than to establish probable cause. See Cox v. Hainey, 391 F.3d 25, 31 (1st Cir.2004). Officers are entitled to qualified immunity “so long as the presence of probable cause is at least arguable.” Ricci v. Urso, 974 F.2d 5, 7 (1st Cir.1992) (quoting Prokey v. Watkins, 942 F.2d 67, 72 (1st Cir.1991)).

The presence of probable cause was not even arguable here. The allegations of the complaint establish that Glik was openly recording the police officers and that they were aware of his surveillance. For the reasons we have discussed, we see no basis in the law for a reasonable officer to conclude that such a conspicuous act of recording was “secret” merely because the officer did not have actual knowledge of whether audio was being recorded. We thus agree with the district court that, at this stage in the litigation, the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity from Glik’s Fourth Amendment claim.

III.
For the reasons set forth above, we affirm the district court’s order denying appellants’ claim of qualified immunity.
So ordered.”

Attorney Ronald A. Sellon

About Attorney Ronald A. Sellon

Ronald A. Sellon is a licensed Attorney in the state of Massachusetts and U.S. District Court, Massachusetts as well as a Sergeant with a Municipal Police Department and U.S. military Veteran. Additionally, he has taught Criminal Procedure at the Massachusetts State Police Academy in New Braintree and has written a text on Criminal Procedure for police field training officer programs. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, was a 2008 recipient of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (Mass C.O.P.) Presidents award and holds a Bachelors Degree in Law Enforcement, a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice Administration, and a Juris Doctor Law Degree. Questions related to content material may be directed to RSellon@PoliceLegalPromotions.com
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