When a man named George Holliday shot video from his balcony of several Los Angeles police officers assaulting Rodney King back in 1991, the incident quickly became a huge national news story. At that time, there was no YouTube, cell phones still were not universal, and video of police misbehavior was still rare. If the Rodney King story happened today, George Holliday’s video would have to compete on the internet with dozens of other frightening and disturbing police misconduct videos.

In the quarter-of-a-century since 1991, video cameras are now everywhere, and an army of citizen-photographers across the country have been recording incidents of police misconduct – and posting their recordings to YouTube. Scores of beatings, assaults, shootings, and incidents of bullying by law enforcement officers can now be seen by everyone. This explosion of citizen video has fueled a national debate about the nature of police work, as well as dramatically changed how people consider claims of police misconduct.

Recent videos that have “gone viral” – that is, videos shared and watched online by thousands, even millions – include videos showing a teenage girl being thrown from a school desk by a sheriff’s deputy in South Carolina and an unarmed man, also in South Carolina, being shot in the back by a police officer. YouTube watchers can also see a 15-year-old girl being thrown to the ground by a police officer in McKinney, Texas, and a New York City police detective screaming at an Uber driver in an out-of-control, xenophobic rant.


In response to these many recent and confirmed recorded incidents of police misconduct, lawmakers around the country have been taking legislative steps to ensure that the citizen-photographers can keep shooting video. For decades, law enforcement officers have resisted being recorded, intimidated citizen-photographers, and have often seized cameras and video with the knowledge that there would be few if any repercussions.


However, since 2014, at least six states have adopted laws which reaffirm that filming the police is a legal right almost always protected under the Constitution. New laws in Connecticut and here in Colorado expose police officers to civil fines if the officers wrongly interfere with or destroy a legal recording. Legislation adopted in the summer of 2015 ensures that Coloradans can record police officers as long as the photographers are not obstructing an officer in the performance of his or her law enforcement duties. The 2015 law entitles Colorado citizens to at least $15,000 in civil damages if police officers interfere with their right to record.


Specifically, the Colorado law states: “A person who lawfully records an incident involving a peace officer and has that recording destroyed by a peace officer or a peace officer seizes the recording without receiving permission from the person to seize it or without first obtaining a warrant has a private civil right of action against the peace officer’s employing law enforcement agency.”


Fort Collins Assistant Chief of Police Cory Christensen says that for many years, the officers in Fort Collins have been trained to interact with citizens who are recording them. “We believe in the professionalism of our officers, so it doesn’t matter if we are being recorded or not,” Christensen says. Officers will only ask citizens to stop recording in sensitive situations involving matters such as sexual assaults or child abuse. Christensen says that yes, Colorado state law allows citizens to record police officers, but citizens still need to respect an officer’s need to perform his or her duties. He added, “obstructing police is a crime.”

In New York City, the expanding practice of citizens recording police officers has meant that more allegations of police misconduct are being confirmed by video recordings. In the first nine months of 2015, 23 percent of misconduct and abuse complaints against New York City police officers were substantiated by a city review board – up from 17 percent in 2014 and 8 percent in 2011. About 40 percent of the nation’s law enforcement agencies now equip police officers with body cameras. Usually, most police officials say, such footage shows officers acting properly and protects officers against fabricated misconduct claims.

Specifically, the 2015 Colorado law affirms that citizens have a right to record “any incident” involving a law enforcement officer and that citizens also have the right to maintain “custody and control” of both the recording (that is, the photos or video) and the device that was used (the camera). The law also gives Colorado citizens the legal grounds to take civil action against police officers who interfere with their recording. Citizens are entitled to compensation for the replacement of damaged devices, $500 for damaged or destroyed recordings, legal fees, and punitive damages of up to $15,000.


As more states affirm the right of citizens to take video of law enforcement officers, some legitimate concerns about citizen-photographers and their impact on police work are being expressed. Some police officers say the citizen-photographers can interfere with police work and create dangerous situations. “They try to get closer to the police than is necessary, and they get in the way sometimes,” Baltimore police Lt. Victor Gearhart tells the Wall Street Journal. Witnesses can also be scared away by photographers, he says: “They don’t want to end up on Facebook and all their friends see them talking to police.”


Last year, police in Baltimore introduced a new policy that allows the police to seize someone’s video only if the officers believe that evidence of a crime is in “immediate jeopardy” of being deleted or altered. The new policy in Baltimore is one part of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which sued on behalf of a citizen-photographer after the Baltimore police destroyed his video of an arrest.


If you are arrested and charged with any crime, video can sometimes be compelling evidence in your defense. Historically, when it’s only your word against an arresting officer, juries and judges have generally given the officer the benefit of the doubt and video recordings eliminate that bias. The recordings can protect an innocent police officer when there is a fabricated allegation of police brutality or misconduct, but the real value of video recordings is the evidence those recordings often provide to defendants.


Denver area residents and visitors charged with a crime will need to retain the advice and services of an experienced Denver criminal defense attorney who has a record of winning similar cases and successfully guiding clients through the often-confusing Colorado criminal justice system. If you face a criminal charge in the Denver area and you were a victim of police brutality or abuse, or if you believe there may be video evidence that can help your case, tell your defense attorney at once.

One of your lawyer’s first moves will be to obtain any pertinent recording of your arrest or of the crime you are accused of committing. In the best scenarios, scrutiny of a video may even lead to a dismissal of criminal charges prior to a trial. If you are accused of any crime in the Denver area, do not admit to anything, and do not try to act as your own attorney. Instead, exercise your right to remain silent, and immediately contact an experienced Denver criminal defense attorney who can fight aggressively for your rights and for justice on your behalf.

By: Dan Murphy

Denver criminal defense lawyer Daniel M. Murphy provides clients in the Denver area with aggressive and sympathetic legal representation. He graduated from the University of Denver Law School in 1994 and worked as a public defender before starting his own practice in 1996. He has defended clients accused of the most difficult criminal and alcohol-related charges. He also serves as a Moot Court Judge for Denver-area law students who rely on his mentorship.