The arrest of North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott came after the release of a cell phone video recorded by an eyewitness. “You can film police on duty as long as you’re not interfering with their activities,” Mark Graber, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Maryland, tells NPR. “Interfering” is the key word word when discussing the legality of recording encounters with the police. “Precisely what constitutes ‘interfering with police duties’ is not entirely clear,” Graber says. “This strikes me as an issue that within five years is likely to be a Supreme Court decision.”
In the meantime, the gray area includes determining how far away eyewitnesses should stand with their cameras so as to not get in the way of police. “It gets murky when, in fact, people recording are so close to the police officer that they’re distracting the police officer, or the police officer can’t tell if it is a camera or a weapon,” says Graber. “Those are where things matter.” Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, says laws that clearly define what is interference would be helpful to police. Five states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York and Texas — are considering bills that might offer some clarity, says Rich Williams of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “The question that the bills are trying to answer is, ‘what is the line between peacefully recording law enforcement activity and interfering with the police officer’s ability to do his job effectively?’ ” he says.