Home / PINAC News / Northern California Cops Beat Mentally Ill Man, Seize Phones, Claim it’s their Right

Northern California Cops Beat Mentally Ill Man, Seize Phones, Claim it’s their Right

Police in Northern California beat and tased a mentally ill man before siccing a dog on him, then turning on citizens who recorded the incident, confiscating cell phones and in one case, ordering a witness to delete his footage.

But one video survived anyway, slightly longer than two minutes, where a cop from the Antioch Police Department can be heard saying he wants cameras confiscated right before the video stops.

ABC7 covered the story, using the old mainstream media tactic of acting clueless about the right to record issue, which saves them from having to take an actual stance and therefore, keeps their relationship with the local police department cordial.

This brings up some interesting questions about the rights of people and their video versus the rights of the police and whether or not they can take away that video.

The “interesting questions” have been answered long ago and it seems as if everybody, but the cops and the media know we have the right to record cops without getting our cameras confiscated, especially when they are beating somebody in public.

As usual in these cases, police refused to provide a video interview to ABC7, who nevertheless spoke to three witnesses, all of them choosing to remain anonymous because it is obvious their local police department has no regard for the law or for people’s civil rights.

But the Antioch Police Department did release a statement claiming they have the right to seize cameras if they are not handed over voluntarily.

Bullshit.

The only time police have the right to seize your camera without a warrant is under “exigent circumstances,” a legal term meaning they have a strong belief the witness is going to destroy the video which contains evidence to a crime.

In this case, it was obvious they were seizing cameras to coverup their own crimes.

Story continues below...



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The first witness told ABC7 News, “I thought it was overkill. I was disgusted by it.”

Several witnesses say the man, who appeared to be mentally disturbed, was handcuffed while police used a Tazer on him and hit him with a baton. Then, they say, an officer released a police dog that began biting the man until he was bleeding and unrecognizable. 

The first witness continued to say, “Not his legs and his arms, his face and his head! That’s doing too much.”

A second witness ABC7 News spoke to says officers began confiscating cellphones from anyone who shot video of the incident. An officer asked for his cellphone after he shot video and the witness said, “Then he took my phone anyway because I didn’t want no problems. He emailed the incident to his phone.”

The first witness said, “They didn’t take no for an answer apparently because they pulled one lady out of her vehicle to get it, and she wouldn’t give it up and they were about to arrest her and finally they let her go because I believe she gave it up.”

However, a third witness told ABC7 News he was ordered to erase his video. So he did. He said, “They were being kind of controlling, like demanding, ‘erase your phone’ and they were trying to take people’s phones away.”

The American Civil Liberties Union says police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photos or video without a warrant. 

Antioch police told ABC7 News in a statement, “If a person is not willing to turn it over voluntarily, an officer can sometimes seize the device containing the video. The police would have to get a search warrant to retrieve the video from the device.”

They are wrong, but nothing will ever be done about it, despite the fact that the United States Department of Justice made the following very clear in 2012:

Policies on individuals’ right to record and observe police should provide officers with clear guidance on the limited circumstances under which it may be permissible to seize recordings and recording devices. An officer’s response to an individual’s recording often implicates both the First and Fourth Amendment, so it’s particularly important that a general order is consistent with basic search and seizure principles. A general order should provide officers with guidance on how to lawfully seek an individual’s consent to review photographs or recordings and the types of circumstances that do—and do not—provide exigent circumstances to seize recording devices, the permissible length of such a seizure, and the prohibition against warrantless searches once a device has been seized. Moreover, this guidance must reflect the special protection afforded to First Amendment materials.

Policies should include language to ensure that consent is not coerced, implicitly or explicitly. See Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 228 (1973) (“[T]he Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments require that a consent not be coerced, by explicit or implicit means, by implied threat or covert force. For, no matter how subtly the coercion was applied, the resulting ‘consent’ would be no more than a pretext for the unjustified police intrusion against which the Fourth Amendment is directed.”). In assessing whether an individual’s consent to search was freely and voluntarily given, Courts may consider “the characteristics of the accused . . . as well as the conditions under which the consent to search was given (such as the officer’s conduct; the number of officers present; and the duration, location, and time of the encounter).” United States v. Lattimore, 87 F.3d 647, 650 (4th Cir. 1996). BPD’s explanation of the process for obtaining consent includes clear guidelines regarding what steps an officer should take once an individual provides an officer with consent to review a recording. However, BPD’s general order should include language to ensure that consent is not coerced, implicitly or explicitly.

Warrantless seizures are only permitted if an officer has probable cause to believe that the property “holds contraband or evidence of a crime” and “the exigencies of the circumstances demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present.” United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 701 (1983). Any such seizure must be a “temporary restraint[] where needed to preserve evidence until police c[an] obtain a warrant.” Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U.S. 326, 334 (2001). Seizures must be limited to a reasonable period of time. For example, in Illinois v. McArthur, the Supreme court upheld a police officer’s warrantless seizure of a premises, in part, because police had good reason to fear that evidence would be destroyed and the restraint only lasted for two hours – “no longer than reasonably necessary for the police, acting with diligence, to obtain the warrant.” Id. at 332. Once seized, officers may not search the contents of the property without first obtaining the warrant. Place, 462 U.S. at 701 & n.3. In the context of the seizure of recording devices, this means that officers may not search for or review an individual’s recordings absent a warrant.

Police departments must also recognize that the seizure of a camera that may contain evidence of a crime is significantly different from the seizure of other evidence because such seizure implicates the First, as well as the Fourth, Amendment. The Supreme Court has afforded heightened protection to recordings containing material protected by the First Amendment. An individual’s recording may contain both footage of a crime relevant to a police investigation and evidence of police misconduct.The latter falls squarely within the protection of First Amendment. See, e.g., Gentile v. State Bar of Nev., 501 U.S. 1030, 1034 (1991) (“There is no question that speech critical of the exercise of the State’s power lies at the very center of the First Amendment.”). The warrantless seizure of such material is a form of prior restraint, a long disfavored practice. Roaden v. Kentucky, 413 U.S. 496, 503 (1973) (when an officer “br[ings] to an abrupt halt an orderly and presumptively legitimate distribution or exhibition” of material protected by the First Amendment, such action is “plainly a form of prior restraint and is, in those circumstances, unreasonable under Fourth Amendment standards.”). See also Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (Where sheriff’s deputies suppressed newspapers critical of the sheriff “before the critical commentary ever reached the eyes of readers, their conduct met the classic definition of a prior restraint.”). An officer’s warrantless seizure of an individual’s recording of police activity is no different. See Robinson v. Fetterman, 378 F.Supp.2d 534, 541 (E.D. Penn 2005) (By restraining an individual from “publicizing or publishing what he has filmed,” officer’s “conduct clearly amounts to an unlawful prior restraint upon [] protected speech.”); see Channel 10, Inc. v. Gunnarson, 337 F.Supp. 634, 637 (D.Minn. 1972) (“it is clear to this court that the seizure and holding of the camera and undeveloped film was an unlawful ‘prior restraint’ whether or not the film was ever reviewed.”).

The warrantless seizure of material protected by the First Amendment “calls for a higher hurdle in the evaluation of reasonableness” under the Fourth Amendment. Roaden v. Kentucky, 413 U.S. 496, 504 (1973). Police departments should limit the circumstances under which cameras and recording devices can be seized and the length of the permissible seizure. BPD’s general order does not convey that the warrantless seizure of recording material is different than the warrantless seizure of many other types of evidence, in that it implicates the First, as well as the Fourth, Amendment. General Order J-16 should make it clear to officers that, in the ordinary course of events, there will not be facts justifying the seizure of cameras or recording devices. Moreover, General Order J-16 does not define “temporary” seizure. BPD should clarify how long and under what circumstances an officer may seize a recording device, even temporarily, and how the recordings on the device must be maintained after seizure. A policy permitting officers, with supervisory approval, to seize a film for no longer than reasonably necessary for the police, acting with diligence, to obtain the warrant if that film contains critical evidence of a felony crime would diminish the likelihood of constitutional violations.

About Carlos Miller

Carlos Miller is founder and publisher of Photography is Not a Crime, which began as a one-man blog in 2007 to document his trial after he was arrested for photographing police during a journalistic assignment. He is also the author of The Citizen Journalist's Photography Handbook, which can be purchased through Amazon.