Do police have the right to confiscate your camera?

Posted: January 27th, 2009 by Militant Libertarian

by Carlos Miller
Seconds after BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant, police immediately began confiscating cell phones containing videos that have yet to see the light of day.

In fact, the only videos that have been seen by the public were filmed by people who managed to leave the scene before police confronted them.

In one instance, police chased after Karina Vargas after she stepped on the train, banging on the window after the doors closed and demanding her to turn over the camera. The train sped away with Vargas still holding her camera.

Her video, which did not show the actual shooting but captured the turmoil before and after, was one of the first to pop up on the internet. And soon after more videos popped up showing the actual shooting.

In the most vivid video, the train doors can be seen closing seconds after the shooting as the train speeds away.

But the truth is, police had no legal right to confiscate a single camera.

“Cops may be entitled to ask for people’s names and addresses and may even go as far as subpoenaing the video tape, but as far as confiscating the camera on the spot, no,” said Marc Randazza, A First Amendment attorney based out of Florida and a Photography is Not a Crime reader.

Bert P. Krages II, the Oregon attorney who drafted the widely distributed The Photographer’s Rights guide, responded to my inquiry with the following e-mail message:

“In general, police cannot confiscate cameras or media without some sort of court order. One exception is when a camera is actually being used in the commission of crime (e.g., child pornography, counterfeiting, upskirting).”

It didn’t appear that the BART videos were being used in a commission of a crime, so what could people have done to prevent police from illegally confiscating their cameras?

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