Because police often tell bystanders to turn off their cameras, even when they have the right to record, it can be confusing to ascertain whether it’s legal to record Texas officers.
“Meanwhile, the importance of witness videos and police bodycam footage as evidence in criminal cases is skyrocketing,” says the Webb Firm, which handles criminal cases in Montgomery County. “Oftentimes, judges and juries are predisposed to believe police officer testimony. Sometimes, a video showing what really happened is the only way to overcome this bias.”
Do you have the right to record Texas police interactions?
Texans do have the right to film and take photos of police encounters, per the Webb Firm, so long as they do not interrupt, impede or otherwise interfere with the officer’s ability to do their work. This likewise applies to filming and photographing firefighters and emergency medical services.
The Texas Penal Code Section 38.15 on interference with public duties states that a person commits a Class B misdemeanor if the person with criminal negligence interrupts, disrupts, impedes or otherwise interferes with a peace officer while the peace officer is performing a duty or exercising authority imposed or granted by law.
What the law says about filming Texas police
Texans have the constitutional right under the First Amendment to record anything in plain view from public spaces, including the police, according to the Webb Firm. While you can also take videos and photos of police on private property, the owner has the right to ask you to stop and leave, and you can be arrested for trespassing if you refuse.
Police are not allowed to confiscate your phone, camera or other recording devices without a warrant, even if you are being arrested. If this happens to you, you should clearly state that you don’t give your consent for the police to look through the footage or photos on the device. Police also may not delete your photos or videos.
Police can however order bystanders to stop recording if it is interfering with their law enforcement work. In an effort to record, you cannot trespass on private property or break other laws.
Be aware of audio-recording laws when it comes to videotaping. In Texas, only one party must consent to an audio recording for it to be legal, so you can record audio of your own police interactions regardless of location. If you’re not a part of the conversation, you can record the audio in police interactions if they occur in public where there is no expectation of privacy.
What to do if police tell you to stop recording
Here’s what the ACLU of Texas advises you do if you’re stopped or detained for recording police interactions:
Be as calm and polite as possible.
Verbally assert your rights.
Never physically resist a police officer.
Ask “Am I free to go?” If the answer is yes, then you are in a voluntary conversation with the officer and are free to leave at any time. If the officer says no, then you are being detained, for which officers must have a reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime.
Ask them to explain why you are being detained, and remind the officer that photographing and filming police does not create a reasonable suspicion of a crime and that your right to record is protected by the First Amendment.