ACLU helps woman beat "interfering" charge brought for recording Somerville police

Jessie Rossman, Wenzday Jane, and Carl Williams outside Somerville District Court. (Credit: ACLU of Massachusetts) The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has helped a woman who faced criminal charges after recording Somerville police. According to a press release from the ACLU:

The Somerville District Court has dismissed a criminal complaint against Ms. Wenzday Jane, initially applied for by police after Jane video-recorded police questioning three teenagers at a playground in Somerville's Prospect Hill neighborhood.

"Essentially, Ms. Jane was criminally charged because she chose to exercise her constitutionally protected right to record the police," said Jessie Rossman, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which represented Ms. Jane. "We need to encourage more citizens to do what Ms. Jane did. The officer's decision to detain her, apply for a criminal complaint and request a summons is indicative of a broader, troubling trend, in which police continue in a variety of ways to hinder people's right to record their work in public. This is especially troubling in light of the nationwide controversy over police accountability following events like the choking death by police of Eric Garner in New York, captured on video by a bystander." ...

In Ms. Jane's case, the Judge today dismissed the criminal complaint following argument by the ACLU of Massachusetts, agreeing that Ms. Jane had not committed the crime of interfering with the police. The ACLU of Massachusetts had also argued that the complaint should be dismissed because "interfering with police" is not a crime in Massachusetts and because criminalizing Ms. Jane's behavior would violate the First Amendment.

"More than three years ago, the federal First Circuit Court in Boston held in Glik v. Cunniffe that the Constitution protects the right to record the police in public," said Carl Williams, an ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney who, with Rossman, represented Ms. Jane. "We need to prevent police from using other criminal charges as a backdoor to try getting around Glik to ensure that individuals are able to exercise this First Amendment right without fear of arrest."

It may sound strange, but there is actually no "interfering with police" charge under Massachusetts law. Police and prosecutors sometimes charge people with it as a common law offense, but some lawyers do not believe this is an appropriate use of the common law.

Of course, even if "interfering with police" is a valid charge, the idea that recording the police somehow interferes with them is completely absurd. Pointing a camera at a police officer in no ways stops them from doing their job. If Somerville police stop what they're doing just to harass videographers, then the only people interfering with their work are themselves.

This case is a reminder that there need to be serious consequences for police who violate the right to record them. While there have been successful lawsuits against police for arresting people for recording, they obviously have not been enough to get police to change their behavior. That's not really much of a surprise, though. After all, it's the taxpayers who pay out the judgments and and settlements in these lawsuits, not the police officers who are actually responsible.

While I have followed a large number of these cases, I have yet to hear of any in which a Massachusetts police officer was fired or criminally charged for violating someone's right to record police. I guarantee that if police start losing their jobs and going to jail over these cases, they will all but stop very quickly.