In May of 2019, Florida man Dillon Shane Webb was pulled over by Columbia County Sheriff’s Deputy Travis English, who objected to the sticker on the back window of Webb’s truck, which said, in all capital letters, “I EAT A**.” Deputy English ordered Webb to remove one of the letters during the traffic stop. Webb refused citing his First Amendment rights. But he was arrested and booked in jail for “obscene writing on vehicle” and “resisting an officer without violence.” Did he have a First Amendment right to have that sticker? Was the arrest unconstitutional? What happened to the criminal charges? Was there a lawsuit? If so, was it successful? You might be surprised…
Section 847.011(2) makes it a misdemeanor offense to possess
“any sticker, decal emblem or other device attached to a motor vehicle containing obscene descriptions, photographs, or depictions . . . .”
Florida law further defines “obscene” as material which
(a) The average person, applying contemporary standards, would find, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b) Depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct as specifically defined herein; and (c) Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Fla. Stat. § 847.001(10).
Under section 843.02, Florida Statutes,
“[w]hoever shall resist, obstruct, or oppose any officer . . . in the lawful execution of any legal duty, without offering or doing violence to the person of the officer, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree . . . .”
Recently, a new sheriff was elected in Los Angeles County. He held a press conference about some bodycam footage that he had just become aware of, showing a deputy punching a mother in the face, in an attempt to take the baby from the mother over concerns that she had not properly transported the child in a carseat. Did the officer act reasonably?
By the way, this is the same agency that is also under investigation for another incident, wherein an elderly woman was slammed to the ground unnecessarily.
This woman was 6 and a half months pregnant when she was pulled over by New York State troopers on March 20. She alleged that she was forced off the road, pulled out of her vehicle, and then treated roughly by the troopers, resulting in her having an emergency C section on the same day, ending in the death of the unborn child. She hired an attorney who called for an investigation in an interview with the media, claiming that civil rights were violated and that the child’s death was homicide, caused by the troopers, claiming she was yanked out of her car like a “rag doll” and slammed on the hood of a vehicle.
In response, the New York State Police released the body cam footage, along with a statement announcing that a “quantity of fentanyl and methamphetamine was located secreted” in the woman’s body. Does the footage corroborate the claims, or exonerate the troopers?
Home video cameras are certainly handy at catching law enforcement violating your constitutional rights. Check out those prior videos if you want to hear me discuss the constitutional rights at play in those incidents. But did you know that the government is also actively using them as well? Do you have a Ring doorbell? How is the footage stored? Can the police obtain that footage against your will, even if you’ve done nothing wrong? What if I told you that Ring just might provide stored footage from cameras inside and around your home to police, even without your consent?
A guy named Michael Larkin was featured in a Politico article. His story exemplify what can happen to you if you use Ring doorbells. He’s a business owner in Hamilton, Ohio, and has a Ring doorbell camera and 20 other Ring cameras in and around his home and business. Five of those cameras surround his house, which record in 5 to 15 second bursts whenever they’re activated. He also has three cameras inside his house, as well as 13 cameras inside the store that he owns. All of these cameras are connected to his Ring account. Ring, the company, stores this footage on their servers for up to 180 days. He thought his footage was his own private footage. But he thought wrong.
One of the excessive force cases we’ve been following just settled, and you may or may not be surprised at the settlement amount. This is the one in Kentucky where a man was arrested inside his parents’ home and was beaten – not terribly – but still beaten, by two Kentucky State Troopers. Then the dad goes to get his cell phone and starts filming. The troopers then took the phone and deleted the footage. Well, as sometimes happens, the parents had interior surveillance cameras that the cops did not know about. My buddy Chris Wiest files a lawsuit against them; puts them under oath at their depositions, and asks them about it. Both troopers denied striking the guy. Unfortunately for them, they had been caught on camera.
On April 9, 2020, Kentucky State Troopers James Cameron Wright, Thomas Czartorski, and a third trooper, Kevin Dreisbach, went to the Hornbacks’ home in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, to arrest 29-year-old Alex Hornback for a missed appearance in Jefferson District Court. Hornback’s mother and father met them at the door and led Wright and Czartorski to the basement, where their son was, while Dreisbach covered the rear of the house.
Czartorski and Wright testified in their January 2021 depositions that they had a relatively calm interaction with Hornback, despite taking him to the floor, and that they didn’t use any other force or strike him.The Hornbacks’ lawyer later released a home-security video contradicting the troopers’ statements. The video showed Wright grabbing Hornback around the neck and slinging him to the floor, though Hornback was not visibly resisting. The video also showed Czartorski striking Hornback four times on the legs with his flashlight. Wright hit Hornback twice in the back with his right forearm and appeared to have his left knee on Hornback’s neck, pushing his face into the floor. Hornback did not suffer any serious injuries.
It’s happened yet again – this time in Ohio – where police arrive to a trespassing complaint at a business (this time at a McDonald’s) and instead of allowing the person to leave the business, they instead detain and forcibly ID the individual. Do police officers have the right to detain someone under these circumstances? More importantly, do they have NEED to do so?
An incident that led to an officer hitting a woman multiple times Monday began as a dispute over missing cheese on a Big Mac. Butler Twp. Sgt. Todd Stanley and Off. Tim Zellers responded at 4:20 p.m. to a call about a disorderly customer at the McDonald’s at 3411 York Commons Blvd., and on arrival, officers spoke to Latinka Hancock, according to a police report.
When the woman refused to provide her ID, the officers engaged in a brutal and violent use of force against her, which one customer inside the McDonald’s caught on video:
Here’s yet another video showing police officers mistreating one of our military veterans for absolutely no good reason. Gee, I wonder, what’s the common theme? Some of you are quick to criticize me anytime I bring up race. Here’s the thing. The Constitution requires police officers to have reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed before detaining an American citizen.
Does the Constitution allow police officers to pull people over based on a hunch? No. Does the Constitution allow police officers to pull people over based on their skin color? No. Does the Constitution allow police officers to pull people over and detain them for any reason at all, short of actual reasonable suspicion that some crime or traffic law has been violated by the driver? No. Do we see them do so in video after video, after video? We sure do. Let’s take a look at this one from Jacksonville, Florida, showing the traffic stop and warrantless arrest of Navy Veteran Braxton Smith.
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.
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.