Most people understand and accept that citizens have a constitutional right to record video of interactions with police officers, at this point – in general. Law enforcement has fought that every step of the way, of course. But is there a right to “livestream” encounters with police officers? More specifically, does a passenger of a vehicle detained at a traffic stop have a constitutional right to livestream the encounter from his cell phone?
Dijon Sharpe was a passenger in a car stopped for a traffic violation in Winterville, North Carolina on October 9, 2018. WPD officers Myers Helms and William Ellis performed the stop. Sharpe began live streaming the encounter with Facebook live. Helms told Sharpe that he could record the traffic stop from inside the car during the encounter but not livestream the traffic stop from inside the car during the traffic stop.
At the beginning of the stop, while the driver and Mr. Sharpe waited for the officers to approach the vehicle, the driver called a third party on his cell phone in order to have a witness to what was happening. Meanwhile, Sharpe began live-streaming what was happening on his Facebook account. The livestream shows that, during the stop, the driver continued his conversation with the third party on his cell phone during the entire course of the stop, including while speaking with the officers. The footage shows the interaction between Mr. Sharpe – the passenger – and Officer Helms. The video shows Officer Helms asking for Mr. Sharpe’s identification and then returning to the police vehicle. During this time, the driver continued his conversation with the third party over the cell phone, explaining that police had begun following the vehicle for some time before initiating the traffic stop. He expressed concern that he had been racially profiled.
As the driver was talking to the third party on his phone, Sharpe talks into his phone, reassuring viewers on Facebook live that he was fine, advocating for his practice of recording interactions with law enforcement. According to the lawsuit he would subsequently file, Sharpe began recording because he had been the victim of a brutal beating at the hands of police officers in the nearby town of Greenville ten months earlier, during a traffic stop. That experience prompted him to ensure any future interactions he had with law enforcement would be recorded for his own protection.
After emerging from the police vehicle, Officer Helms is seen on the video approaching the car window. He says, “What have we got? Facebook Live, cous?” As soon as Mr. Sharpe responds affirmatively, Officer Helms abruptly thrusts his arm through the passenger window and attempts to seize Mr. Sharpe’s cell phone, while pulling on Sharpe’s seatbelt and shirt. During this altercation, Officer Helms tells Sharpe: “We ain’t gonna do Facebook Live, because that’s an officer safety issue.”
Shortly afterwards, following the issuance of citations to the driver, Officer Ellis states: “Facebook Live . . . we’re not gonna have that, okay, because that lets everybody y’all follow on Facebook that we’re out here…” He says that recording is fine, but if you’re live, your phone is gonna be taken. Otherwise you’re going to jail. Sharpe then asked Ellis if that was a law. Ellis responded that it was a violation of the RDO statute, which is basically North Carolina’s obstruction statute. In the end, the phone was not seized. There was no citation or arrest pertaining to the livestreaming. However, the threat was made that next time, the phone would be seized and an arrest would be made if the phone was not forfeited.
In Mr. Sharpe’s video, look how the officer is standing there watching Sharp and the driver and treating them like they’re up to no good. Yet the reason for the stop was supposedly a basic traffic violation. The officer asks for Sharp’s ID because “he likes to know” who he’s out with. Is it any wonder that police officers get the reputation they have?
Based on the incident, as well as the threat to stop livestreaming in the future, under penalty of arrest, Sharpe sued the officers and the Town of Winterville under Section 1983 for violation of the First Amendment. The district court dismissed the claims against the individual officers on qualified immunity grounds, holding that it was not clearly established in October of 2018 that a passenger in a stopped vehicle had a constitutional right to record and live broadcast the interaction. Additionally, the Court held that live-streaming by a vehicle passenger poses a “unique” threat to officer safety that mere recording does not and is therefore not clearly protected under the First Amendment.
Eleven months later, the district court dismissed the claim against the Town of Winterville on the grounds that Mr. Sharpe had no constitutional right to live broadcast at all, and that even if he did, the town’s policy of arresting traffic stop passengers for live-streaming passes constitutional review under intermediate scrutiny. The district court held that “[r]ecording a traffic stop for publication after the traffic stop versus livestreaming an ongoing traffic stop from inside the stopped car during the traffic stop are significantly different.”
“[L]ivestreaming the interaction from inside the stopped car during the traffic stop … allows … those watching, to know the location of the interaction, to comment on and discuss in real-time the interaction, and to provide the perspective from inside the stopped car,” JA81. “The perspective from inside the stopped car, for example, would allow a viewer to see weapons from inside the stopped car that an officer might not be able to see and thereby embolden a coordinated attack on the police.” Thus the Court concluded that Mr. Sharpe had no First Amendment right to live-stream.
Mr. Sharpe appealed to the Fourth Circuit. It drew significant attention from civil liberties and press advocates. Seven amicus briefs were filed in support of his claims. Here’s Sharpe’s opening brief:
Oral arguments were held last month, which involved a heated discussion between one of the federal judges on the panel and the lawyer representing Mr. Sharpe. During the oral arguments, the federal judge seemed highly concerned about the rights of police officers, as opposed to the rights of an innocent citizen being detained as a passenger in a traffic stop. Listen for yourself.
Here’s the full raw footage, which was linked in the court record (Facebook video link).
The Fourth Amendment grants no rights to officers. “The right of the PEOPLE to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …” Its purpose is to guarantee individual rights against the power of the government.
This flies in the face of actual Fourth Amendment law. They are using amorphous and general concerns over “officer safety” that are not particular to the individual they are seeking to restrict. In other words, the officers here, and those advocating for them to do so, want the officers to have the power to stop livestreaming, based only on obscure general concerns over officer safety. Theoretically, if some bad guy was watching the livestream he could find the location while the stop is in progress and theoretically harm the officers or cause some other safety issue.
They’re not saying that this particular individual should not livestream under these circumstances, because that person is a particular safety threat and those facts can be demonstrated in court or to a judge. They’re using blanket reasons. Again, that flies in the face of existing Fourth Amendment law, which requires particularity to the individual for things like frisks and searches. Blanket reasons never go well with constitutional law. Usually we’re told that law enforcement actions were justified based on the “totality of the circumstances.” Well now, because they hate video footage, we no longer look at the totality of the circumstances, but rather, at the vague concept that police officers are afraid of absolutely everything and everyone.
The fact is, freedom is scary. They need to deal with it, or get another job. We cannot and must not appease that fear.