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Bill seeks to protect those who film peace officers

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AUSTIN (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) - People who film on-duty police officers with their cell phones could get extra protections through a bill filed by the chairman of the state Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security.

Senate Bill 897, also known as the Freedom to Film Act, addresses charges that could be filed as retribution against residents who were filming peace officers with smart phones or other devices, which is legal. The bill would allow legal authorities to drop charges like interference with public duty or failure to obey a police officer if the person charged did nothing other than film officers. The person would subsequently be able to seek attorneys' fees and damages if their equipment was destroyed.

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, author of the measure, said his legislation aims to remove the potential for law enforcement to target someone who is simply filming an officer on duty. The measure looks to ensure that unwarranted police retribution wouldn't become a large-scale problem in Texas.

"In recent years, as more and more people have started carrying smart phones, there has been a disturbing trend nationwide of citizens being harassed by law enforcement for filming, photographing, and recording law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, multiple incidents have occurred in Texas where citizens were told to stop filming the police," Estes said. "The police are public servants, so they should not be doing anything that they would not want caught on film."

He added that his bill sought to clarify the legality of filming officers and include more protections for people doing so.

Officials with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT, said they would monitor SB 897 more closely once the Senate State Affairs Committee takes it up. Charley Wilkison, CLEAT's director of public affairs, said recently that the safety of police officers must be a main priority.

"We don't want an officer in any kind of danger, and that would include anything that puts them at risk or that distracts them or would cause them to be focused on anything other than doing their job," he said. "[However], it's a free country, and everyone can take a picture of what they want to take or make an iPhone video."

Wilkison added that those who are filmed during their interactions with police officers may also have concerns over privacy. But he also said that CLEAT was not against transparency as long as the measure didn't go beyond First Amendment protections.

"The person they are interacting with, even if it may happen in public — that person who is being stopped and talked to has some privacy due them as well," he said. "But if the officer is doing something wrong, that's going to come to light."

Estes said his bill was crafted to ensure that residents could not circumvent current law and distract from a police officer's duties.

"It is important to note that the bill is drafted narrowly so that if a person is doing more than just filming, like getting in the officer's way or shouting obscenities, this bill would not prevent the officer from dealing with him or her appropriately," he said. "My hope is that this bill will encourage police officers to continue being good public servants."

A similar issue has caught the attention of the Obama administration after the 2011 arrest of a Maryland photojournalist. This month, the U.S. Department of Justice urged a federal court to reject a plea filed by Montgomery County, Md., that seeks to dismiss a case brought by a White House-credentialed reporter. Mannie Garcia alleges he was dragged to a police car and handcuffed by officers after he filmed what he thought was their excessive use of force during an arrest.

Politico reported that according to Garcia, the only interaction he had with police officers was to tell them he was a member of the press.

"The First Amendment right to record police officers performing public duties extends to both the public and members of the media, and the Court should not make a distinction between the public's and the media's rights to record here," attorneys with the Department of Justice said in their briefing.

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