You have the right to film police activity — no matter what that might be — as long as you do not interfere. Occasionally, it becomes necessary to perform a simple audit of police to ensure they will uphold the laws they’re tasked with enforcing.
That had been the intent of YouTube user, Trey Citizen, when he filmed the parking lot of the Greer, South Carolina, Police Department — and what he discovered should leave First Amendment advocates everywhere disheartened and wanting to test their local police.
Trey positioned himself at the sidewalk as he filmed the lot for his First Amendment audit. Shortly into the footage, an unmarked vehicle with heavily-tinted windows leaves the lot, pausing as it exits.
Soon afterward, a marked vehicle stops and an officer approaches, and in a seemingly friendly manner, asks Trey, “How are you doing today?”
As everyone should in any interaction with the cops, Trey asks for the officer’s name and badge number. Corporal Travis tells the auditor there has been a report of suspicious activity — specifically, the filming of the parking lot — and asks what he’s doing.
Trey refuses to offer any additional information, as is his constitutional right since filming the lot is not criminal activity.
Travis, apparently salty at the refusal to provide an explanation, says, “So, we’re just gonna have a stare-off … ‘cause I’m recording you and you’re recording me? Is that what we’re going to do?
“You have your ID on you?”
Trey is under no obligation to provide identification — he isn’t doing anything criminal, and if the totality of his ‘suspicious activity’ comprises filming, Travis should, by all accounts, allow him to continue.
“Have I done anything wrong?” Trey asks.
“Well, you’re recording, it’s suspicious activity, which puts this into a category of suspicious activity, which means that [with] Terry versus Ohio, which means that I can detain you until I can determine or deny that this isn’t criminal activity …”
“Sir,” Trey interrupts, “Terry v. Ohio, suspicious activity is not enough reasonable cause for [demanding] ID.”
Of course, Trey’s knowledge of the law in this matter stands. With the court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio, an officer must have reasonable suspicion a person is committing or about to commit a crime, or must reasonably believe the person “may be armed and presently dangerous.” But Travis persists, responding, “There’s already been a call on it, so yeah there would.”
Trey proceeds with testing Travis, “So, suspicious activity — is that a felony or a misdemeanor?”
“That’s a misdemeanor.”
“No it’s not,” Trey responds.
“Yes, it is.”
“I can’t believe you just sat here and lied.”
Travis repeats his request for ID, and Trey, obviously more knowledgeable of the law than this law enforcement officer — suspicious activity is neither a felony nor a misdemeanor — asks for a supervisor to be summoned to the scene.
While waiting for the supervisor, Trey begins to explain why he’s taping, but Travis then offers a ridiculous reason for requesting ID:
“When you’re not answering me, how do I know you’re not filming this parking lot to come shoot it up?”
Finally, Sgt. Forester approaches, Trey explains the situation and rightly requests Forester explain to Travis why there would be no reason for him to produce identification simply for filming.
“What crime have I committed?” Trey now asks Forester.
After the second cop repeats the suspicious activity claim, Trey keenly asks if that would be a felony or misdemeanor.
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“Uhh … it’s neither one, but he asked for ID, so …”
“So, now we have a conflict on which one it is,” Trey begins, but despite being vindicated, a third officer approaches aggressively, and interrupts.
“We don’t have a conflict at all,” the third cop begins, “we have a conflict with the way you’re acting, sir.”
As this arrogant cop confronts Trey, attempting to intimidate by getting in his face, the filmer repeats, “Whoa, whoa,” to try to stop his needless aggression.
“Taping our parking lot in today’s day and age … you don’t gotta ‘whoa’ nothing,” he continues, identifying himself as Lt. Holcomb. “Now give me your ID,” he demands, pointing a finger in Trey’s face.
“Let me have an ID. Let me have an ID … please. An ID. An ID.”
“What crime have I committed,” Trey repeats several times, but is only met with the demand for ID from the finger-pointing Holcomb.
“You’re going to be … failure to listen to a law enforcement officer. I asked you for an ID. Have you got an ID?” Holcomb repeats like a broken record, as if not listening to a cop’s unlawful demand would constitute a crime.
Holcomb fails to recognize not only Trey’s question, but it’s obvious answer: there is no crime being committed, and the young man is under no obligation under the law to identify himself.
“What crime have I committed?”
“Videotaping our parking lot, and walking around the police department …”
“Is that a crime?” Trey asks in disbelief.
“Yes sir. Right now in this day and age that we’re dealing with … yes sir, it is a crime to sit here …”
“What crime have I committed today?”
“Any time there’s a suspicious person, that’s going around …”
“Is that a felony or a misdemeanor?”
“It’s a,” Holcomb begins then, realizing Trey knows the law and hasn’t committed a crime, demands, “let me see your ID.”
Fed up with being schooled on the law, Holcomb places Trey under arrest — under a fabrication of law which doesn’t exist and ordinarily would never stand up in a court of actual law. But the blatant violation of the filmer’s rights doesn’t end there.
Once Trey has been stuffed in the back of a police vehicle, these keystone cops allow his phone to continue filming. What it captures on audio could constitute downright criminal activity.
Officers’ can be overheard discussing the fact Trey hadn’t been doing anything wrong, but had been called for his purported ‘suspicious activity.’ Then, they discuss his video footage — saying they “don’t know what’s on that cell phone.”
“I think that cell phone should go,” one officer says, intimating Trey’s phone may become ‘lost’ at some future point.
Though some may argue Trey would have no reason to film the Greer Police Department’s parking lot, the act was a simple test of First Amendment rights and protections — and these bungling cops failed miserably.
In fact, as the footage show beyond question, the Greer Police feel the law can be interpreted to suit their whims. While this is increasingly true — with rights-crushing court decisions in Heien v. North Carolina and U.S. v. Shelton Barnes — filming the police remains an activity protected by the Constitution.
We must constantly flex our rights and test the boundaries of protected activity — otherwise, those rights gradually slip away until none remain. Trey had the law on his side — whether or not the officers have knowledge of the laws they’re tasked with enforcing.