With a smartphone in every pocket, and ubiquitous access to cameras and the internet, witness videos of crime have become a daily occurrence. In fact, police shootings and violent force have been recorded by bystanders so often that the footage has now become evidence, frequently used in court to condemn perpetrators. While this kind of footage can be extremely useful to authorities when it comes to prosecuting criminals, there are a few things to keep in mind before you record a video of a possible crime.
In 2020 the world was disgusted by footage of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of US police. Only three weeks before that, phone footage of the shooting of 25-year old Ahmaud Arbery had gone viral. Not only did the Arbery footage result in the arrest of two local men, but it changed the life of the onlooker who had taken it in the first place.
William “Roddie” Bryan had captured the footage of the incident from his pickup truck, but shortly after it went viral he received massive backlash from the public who accused him of being more than just an innocent witness. Despite taking a polygraph test to prove his innocence, Bryan was forced into hiding after becoming the target of protesters. He was later arrested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on charges of felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment in connection with Arbery’s murder, though he maintained his innocence.
Videos of crimes have become so important in the implementation of contemporary justice that law enforcement authorities sometimes call for members of the public to come forward with them. While an incident is happening, however, bystanders may not be aware of the impact their cellphone footage could have. It’s just so easy to pull out your phone and start filming. Criminal defence and family law practitioner, Eric J. Trabin told How Stuff Works that one may only realise much later the implications of the footage they’ve captured. “No one knows if it’s going to be a high-profile case when the incident is happening, that you are going to be sucked into the vortex.”
Here are a few things to keep in mind when hitting record at the scene of an incident:
You’re allowed to record in public
This may vary from country to country, but in the US anyway, you’re allowed to record almost anything in a public place. “When in public spaces where you are lawfully present you have the right to photograph — still or video — anything that is in plain view,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project told How Stuff Works. Of course, this has a few limitations when it comes to things such as stalking, or child pornography. The gist is, however, that if you’re out on the street you’re allowed to document almost anything you please.
This freedom does not extend to private property, but according to Stanley there may be some loopholes there too. “Some recent court cases have suggested that there may be exceptions, however, where people can record even against the wishes of a property owner, such as when you’re taping something of public concern like illegal activity. The law is still uncertain in that area.”
You don’t have to do anything with the footage
If you’ve taken a video of a possible crime, you could just walk away and nobody need ever see it. It’s your prerogative if you choose to submit the video to authorities at all – unless it’s known to include some seriously important evidence, in which case a warrant may be obtained in order for the police to get it from you.
“In most instances, police can’t confiscate your phone, unless it’s either some sort of dire life-and-death emergency, or they have reason to believe that you’re going to delete the evidence,” writes Patrick J. Kiger at How Stuff Works.
You could become a witness in a case
It’s not only the video footage itself that could be useful in court if you’ve taken a video of a possible crime. The videos metadata – time and date data, or geolocation information – could help too.
Then there’s the fact that, if you were close enough to record the incident, you may also have seen or heard something that wasn’t captured by the phone. In some cases, the person who shot the film may be called in to confirm that what’s shown in the footage does accurately represent events. Even then the opposition could argue that your footage misrepresents the incident, or does not accurately portray all of the event.
Getting dragged into a criminal case may not sound like a lot of fun to many, so it’s a good thing to keep in mind – when pressing that record button – that it could be a possibility.
You could receive considerable public attention
People are always going to have opinions, and being a part of them isn’t always a good time. One frequent question you’ll probably be asked is “if you where there, and had time to take out your phone, why didn’t you do anything to help?”
This is a tough argument, because often in the moment we have no idea what to do. Often recording the incident so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice is the best thing we can do. Bystanders are not generally legally compelled to assist the victim in an incident, but of course, the legalities and our own sense of humanity and sympathy wth the victim are not always in sync.
One’s choice to upload the video to social media will also be judged by the masses. Internet trolls and cyberbullies will probably have a lot to say about whatever your footage does, or even does not, contain.
Whatever your course of action, you may need to consider finding legal representation if you have indeed captured footage of a crime. If you’re going to be dragged into a case, it’s best to have someone who knows what they’re doing to guide you.
Additionally, if you have shot a video of a possible crime, it might be a good idea to make some back-up copies just in case it can in fact aid a police investigation.
Keep all this in mind if you’re ever at an incident, and you choose to hit that record button. That one simple action may have a pretty big impact on the people involved and on you.