Videotape Your Next Traffic Stop: A Good Idea?

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Videotaping the police officer who pulled you over is legal, but is it a smart thing to do? (Alex Wong, Getty Images)

By  Rex Roy Posted Sep 28th 2010 at 1:00AM

With the proliferation of video cameras in phones and MP3 players, capturing an event on video has never been easier.

The tools are now pocket sized, creating a new wrinkle in how we're interacting with everything around us, including the police. While cops started arming themselves with vehicle-mounted cameras over a decade ago, only recently have we seen citizen-police interaction from this new perspective.

Is it legal? The official answer is yes, but that doesn't mean it will win you any points with a police officer. Is it smart? Well, we'll get to that.

No Expectation Of Privacy
As for why it's legal to video your own traffic stop, the law focuses on the fact that it's happening in public. Joseph Ejbeh, a practicing attorney working in Rochester Hills, Michigan, explained the notion of assumed privacy.

"When you're in a public place, there's no expectation of privacy," Ejbeh said. "It's public. It's out in the open. Anything happening in public is fair game to video. That includes a traffic stop."

AOL Autos interviewed lawyers who explained to us that laws regulating the recording of video and audio in public places differ by state. Generally there are only narrow restrictions that can include, for example, when a videographer might be disturbing the peace or interfering with police activities.

Taking Matters Into His Own Hands
"No expectation of privacy" is exactly the phrase that ultimately led to Anthony Graber winning his a case brought by Maryland State Police. Graber was topped last year on his motorcycle for speeding. He was not stopped by a uniformed police officer in a cruiser, however. Instead, a plain-clothes off-duty officer saw the biker speeding and approached him with a gun. Graber's helmet camera recorded the incident.

Graber still has to deal with the speeding violations in an upcoming court date, but the videotaping charge is no longer valid.

Graber isn't alone in videotaping police during a traffic stop. When former Air Force flight officer Scott Colley drove through Lacrosse, Virginia on the night of January 15, 2010, he probably didn't realize how the events of that night would change his life and his view on law enforcement. Colley was pulled over for speeding on Highway 58, although he had his cruise control set at the posted speed limit of 50 MPH.

When the officer claimed he "paced" him and determined he was going much faster than the speed limit, Colley pulled out his videocamera to get a record of the conversation.

"Turn that off, sir," the officer said.

Despite the officer's initial protests, Colley kept filming, capturing 19 minutes in total. Eventually he posted his videos on YouTube and started a website called Highway 58 Speed Trap to expose the trap to other motorists.

"This stretch of Highway 58 is as notorious as the 'Bermuda Triangle,'" Colley wrote on his site. "But it's in our country, and now we have video evidence of the travesty! These Flip cameras are only 160 bucks. Never leave home without one."

In the end, his diligence paid off. The attorney set to argue the case on behalf of the city was made aware of Colley's efforts to dig into the "pacing" issue that he had videotaped. Only a short time after these tapes hit the internet, his case was thrown out. Oddly, Colley says that attorney admitted she hadn't even seen the video evidence, but nevertheless the case went into the circular file.

Police: On Video
So what do the police think of camera-wielding citizens? Most police departments do not have official policies on the issue. This makes an officer's response to a video camera up to the discretion of the individual officer.

"I've had several citizens video their traffic stops," said Los Angeles Police Department Officer Clarence Williams. "It hasn't been a problem for me except for when they shove the camera in my face. If they're respectful, everything goes fine.

"I recently stopped a young man who was making a video for a film class at school. He [videotaped] the entire process. I understood what he was doing and that it wasn't a dangerous or adversarial situation."

Others cite the need for officer safety. Cops don't like anything pointed directly at them, even if it's just a lens.

"I don't mind if a citizen has a video camera, but for me it becomes an issue of officer safety," said Detroit area Officer Frank Zielinski. "I don't like to have a citizen with something in their hands that they're pointing at me. Officers are trained to be very wary about what a person has in their hands. If we let our guard down for a second, we could miss seeing a weapon."

Zielinski explained that some cameras have been known to conceal guns.

"If somebody wants to video their traffic stop, that's totally within their rights," said Zielinkski. "The truth is that we're already on video. I've got a video camera running in the patrol car and I'm wired with a microphone. For a nominal fee, people can come to the station to request a video of their traffic stop, no problem. As for them holding their own camera, I'd rather they put it up on the dash so that their hands are empty."

While more municipalities are deploying in-car camera systems for their police departments, budget constraints have prevented major cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit from having cameras in all patrol cars.

Lawyers: On Video
"While it is legal, to hold a camera in anybody's face — including a police officer's — could be construed as really offensive," said attorney Matt Walton of Mt. Clemens, Michigan. "I'd recommend people think about what they're doing and consider the police officer's point of view before they whip out a video camera."

Walton brought up several points to ponder. While it is legal to record a traffic stop, the citizen must obey an officer's legitimate commands. If you are told to put the camera down, it's wise to follow that advice or you could be arrested for interfering with an officer in the line of duty.

Walton further notes that if you hope to use your video to beat your ticket, you must have recorded the ticketable offense to prove your point. Just recording the stop won't help. "What matters to the judge is whether you did what you're accused of, not what happened after," said Walton.

As a matter of act, videoing your traffic stop might make things worse for you. Walton opined, "Recording a police officer will not likely result in a 'Better slow it down and have a nice day' warning. The officer is likely to write you up for every possible infraction." The lawyer then referenced a recent incident in Michigan's Oakland Country where an officer gave a county executive a break during a traffic stop. The officer was subsequently disciplined for abusing his discretion when the details of the stop — and the breaks — were made public.

Another suburban Detroit officer agreed to talk to AOL on the condition of anonymity due to a pending lawsuit that tangentially involves this issue. This 33-year veteran confirmed Walton's assumption. He told AOL, "If somebody is going to come at me with an attitude and a camera, I'm going to do everything exactly by the book. They won't get one single break. I've had it happen a few times and because I'm being [videotaped], I professionally follow the letter of the law."

Remember: the letter of the law doesn't spell out giving breaks.

Making The Decision
"Over the years I've worked for government prosecutors and I've observed that police officers are overwhelmingly good people who follow the rules," said Walton. "But video can be used to document abuses that occur."

Should you or shouldn't you? That's a judgment call you're going to have to make. But if you do, know that your chances of receiving a speeding warning drop significantly.

If you do videotape the police publicly acting in an unlawful manner, it is not legal for those police officers to make you delete the files or confiscate your video device. If such a request or threat is made, you have a valid reason to make an official complaint against the officers involved.

Lights! Camera! Action!