Updated at 5:58 p.m.
To settle a lawsuit brought by a man who claimed he was wrongly detained after taking pictures of police activity, the Metropolitan Police Department has issued a new general order (PDF) spelling out the public's right to photograph and record police officers carrying out official business.
Jerome Vorus sued the city last June in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. His attorney, Arthur Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital, filed a notice of voluntary dismissal in the case today. In an interview, Spitzer confirmed that the new general order was part of the settlement agreement.
The order, which went into effect July 19, "explicitly recognizes and instructs all the members of the police department that people have a constitutional right to video and audio record them while they're doing public business in a public place," said Spitzer, legal director of the local ACLU affiliate. "And then goes on to provide very useful, I think, detailed guidance what to do in various situations."
Police department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said in an e-mail today that: "While we have pre-existing policy that addresses interaction with the media, the new general order reaffirms the Metropolitan Police Department's recognition of the First Amendment rights enjoyed by — not only members of the media, but the general public as well — to video record, photograph and or audio record MPD members conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space, unless such recordings interfere with police activity."
According to Vorus' complaint, he was taking pictures of a traffic stop in Georgetown when police officers approached him and asked him why he was taking pictures. He claimed that four different officers told him it was illegal to take pictures without permission from the public affairs office, which, he noted in the complaint, is not the case. He said he was temporarily detained and that police checked his identification.
Vorus alleged violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights, as well as for false arrest and imprisonment. He was the only plaintiff in the case, but stated in his complaint that "on many other occasions," D.C. police officers had unlawfully ordered people to stop taking photographs or recordings of police activity in public places.
The city moved to dismiss Vorus' lawsuit last August, but a month later joined Vorus in asking the court to put case proceedings on hold as they negotiated a possible settlement. Both sides continued to ask the court for a stay through July 13, when they filed a notice that they had reached a settlement and were finalizing the details. Spitzer said the bulk of negotiations had to do with crafting the general order.
The order, which is posted online through MPD's website, states that the department "recognizes that members of the general public have a First Amendment right to video record, photograph, and/or audio record MPD members while MPD members are conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space, unless such recordings interfere with police activity."
If police officers think that a person's photographs or recordings could be evidence, the order states that officers can ask to have those photographs or recordings sent to their official e-mail account. Spitzer said this was a "new mechanism" that the parties came up with during settlement negotiations. He called it a "win-win situation all around."
If police do seize the camera or recording device, the order notes that they can't review anything without a warrant or, in "exigent circumstances," without permission from the watch commander. It also notes that police can't delete or order someone to delete photographs, videos or audio recordings.
Spitzer said that the order is especially necessary as more people have cell phones or other devices with recording technology built in. "The fact that millions of people are now walking around with cameras in their pocket all the time has led to a tremendous increase in photos of police in action," he said, noting that those photos, videos and audio recordings have been used as evidence of crimes as well as evidence of police misconduct (or the lack thereof).