Lazaro Estrada was confused. He claims he didn’t interfere with police. He claims he did what he was told. There’s video evidence to support his claims. And yet, police charged him with obstruction of justice for filming an arrest on a public street with his cell phone. “What did I do wrong?” Estrada asked.
If his claims are true, the answer is, “nothing.” The First Amendment guarantees peaceful citizen-recorders the freedom to film public officials in public places where the recorders have a right to be present.
According to CBS Miami, Estrada, a freelance disc jockey, was spinning records at a promotional event at a Southwest Miami-Dade store when police arrested store owner Andre Trigiano on outstanding misdemeanor traffic charges. Estrada began recording the episode with his iPhone only after the officer removed Trigiano from the store and threw Trigiano to the ground. Estrada’s video begins with an officer standing on the sidewalk about 20 feet from Estrada, holding a handcuffed Trigiano by the arm. The officer then turns to Estrada, says something, and gestures at Estrada to get away. The video shows Estrada immediately retreating into the store where he remained – until he was dragged out by arriving officers.
The U.S. Supreme Court consistently has held the First Amendment protects the right to gather publicly available information. The location where Estrada’s filming took place – a public street – was open to all, and Estrada had the right to observe the arrest. There’s nothing about the presence of a camera, without more, that legitimizes interference. Thus, federal courts that have considered the issue have consistently held citizens such as Estrada have a constitutional right to film officers who are performing their duties in public places, subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.
We wrote recently about the arrest of another Floridian, Brandy Berning, whom the police charged with violating a wiretapping statute because she filmed a traffic stop. Like Berning, Estrada does not seem to have done anything to justify an arrest. Florida law provides that “(w)hoever shall resist, obstruct, or oppose any officer… in the execution of legal process or in the lawful execution of any legal duty… shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree.” In his arrest report, Miami-Dade Ofc. Michael Valdez wrote that he gave Estrada “verbal commands to back away and he refused to do so.” But the video shows Valdez waving off Estrada only once and Estrada retreating inside the store. He doesn’t appear to be resisting, obstructing or opposing anything.
Officers can take reasonable measures to protect themselves or prevent individuals at the scene from obstructing their efforts. But there is a constitutional presumption against interference with citizens who use cell phones to film police in public where they have the right to be. The frequency with which the right to film police in public is seemingly being violated in Florida should cause all Americans concern. Barring the revelation of further facts, the charges against Estrada should be dropped.