In Colorado, you are allowed to record and videotape the police in public. However, this right is not absolute. You can still be arrested for other, “catchall” offenses like disorderly conduct (CRS 18-9-106) or obstruction of justice if you disobey police commands.
If you are unlawfully arrested for videotaping police, you can file a lawsuit under a new Colorado law.
You have a First Amendment right to videotape or record police in public
The First Amendment gives you the right to take photos or video if you are in a public place. This includes filming the police.
The U.S. Supreme Court has not recognized this right, yet. However, all 6 circuit courts that have addressed the issue have recognized the right.1
While police are in a public area and acting in their official capacity, they have no expectation of privacy. They cannot tell you to stop recording to protect their own privacy. When they are in public, they have no privacy.
This means you have the following rights when it comes to videotaping police:
- If a police officer is in public, they can be recorded, and
- If you are on your own property, you can record the police,
Courts have recognized this right because it also impacts the public. Part of the First Amendment is the right of the public to receive information. Videotaping police in action provides incredibly important information to the public.
Recording police from someone else's private property
Your right to record or videotape police shrinks if you are on someone else's property.
If you are in a private area that you do not own, the owner of the premises can limit what you can record. If they ask you to stop recording, you have to comply. They have privacy rights in these situations that you could be violating.
A more common repercussion of filming police while you are in a private area is you can get arrested for trespassing. If police are annoyed that you are recording them, they often go out of their way to make such an arrest.
You still have to comply with a police officer's commands
If you are in public while you record police, you still have to comply with a police officer's commands. Police can keep you from entering an area that is dangerous or sensitive for police work. They can also tell you to stop recording if it would interfere with them.
This is often where your rights to record police get tricky. On the one hand, police cannot have people recording from the middle of a firefight or intimidating witnesses with a camera. On the other hand, police cannot insulate an investigation from the public eye.
Police frequently abuse this dilemma. They control how you videotape police activity so tightly that you cannot record anything of interest or value.
However, if you disobey legitimate police commands, you are likely to get arrested. Common charges are:
- Obstruction of justice,
- Disorderly conduct, or
- Obstructing a peace officer (CRS 18-8-104).
Police cannot take or break your camera or delete your photos
The Fourth Amendment prohibits police from unreasonably searching through or seizing your camera. Practically speaking, there are only 2 ways for police to legally take your camera and look through your photos:
- They have a warrant to do so, or
- You have given them permission to do so.
Deleting photos or video that you have recorded could even be a crime. It could be considered tampering with evidence (CRS 18-8-610).
Colorado law allows you to sue police for taking your camera or deleting photos
In Colorado, there is a law that expressly allows you to sue a police department if one of their officers takes your camera or deletes photos you took. It was passed in 2015 and went into effect on May 20, 2016.
CRS 13-21-128 allows you to file a lawsuit if you lawfully recorded a police officer and they:
- Unlawfully broke, deleted, or took your camera or what you recorded,
- Intentionally interfered with your lawful attempt to record an incident involving another cop,
- Retaliated against you for recording, or even trying to record, another police officer, or
- Refuse to return your camera or recording without reason.
If any of these things happen, you can file a notice with the police department. They can either deny the claim or cover the costs of the damage and pay $500 for the recording.
If they deny the claim, you can file a lawsuit. A successful lawsuit can recover:
- The cost of repairing or replacing the camera,
- Court costs,
- Attorneys' fees,
- $500 for the recording, and
- Up to $15,000 in punitive damages against the police department.
See Gericke v. Begin, 753 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2014); Fields v. City of Philadelphia, 862 F.3d 353 (3rd Cir. 2017); Turner v. Lieutenant Driver, 848 F.3d 678 (5th Cir. 2017); American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois v. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583 (7th Cir. 2012); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436 (9th Cir. 1995); and Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332 (11th Cir. 2000).