In a video which is currently circulating online (see below), a police officer in the United States was filmed stopping a male driver, and then lying about the law which supposedly allows him to order the driver to stop filming.
The incident, which occurred on 26 February in North Carolina but the video has only surfaced now, started when Jesse Bright, who was an attorney but was part-timing as a Uber driver at the time, was pulled over by police sergeant, Kenneth Becker.
Bright told the media later that he was working for Uber to help pay off his law-school loans.
After he was pulled over, the officer told him that he had brought his passenger to a drug house which was under surveillance at the time. Apparently, the police thought Bright himself was involved in drug activity.
What followed was an exchange between Bright and officer Becker who, strangely, claimed that there was a new state law which forbade Bright from filming him.
Bright told the media that as a lawyer, he believed that it was necessary for members of the public to record their interactions with the police, so that if any dispute arose later about what transpired, there would be proof.
The Washington Post reports the exchange:
“Hey, bud, turn that off, okay?” Becker said.
“No, I’ll keep recording, thank you,” Bright responded. “It’s my right.”
“Don’t record me,” the police sergeant said. “You got me?”
“Look,” Bright said, “you’re a police officer on duty. I can record you.”
“Be careful because there is a new law,” Becker said. “Turn it off or I’ll take you to jail.”
“For recording you?” the video shows Bright asking Becker. “What is the law?”
A tense exchange followed, with Becker telling Bright to step out of his car, calling him “a jerk,” then warning him that he “better hope” officers didn’t find something in his vehicle.
Bright continued to record, saying, “I know my rights.”
“I hope so,” said Becker, the police sergeant. “I know what the law is.”
“I know the law,” Bright said. “I’m an attorney, so I would hope I know what the law is.”
“And an Uber driver?” Becker asked.
Bright also had an exchange with another officer at the scene.
“I’ve never heard of this law that you’re not allowed to record the police anymore — it must be brand new,” Bright said.
“Well, they just recently passed it,” the deputy responded.
“Like super recently?” Bright asked. “It seems like a strange law.”
Bright eventually got out of the car, and allowed the police officers, who had sniffer dogs with them, do a search of his car. They found nothing and allowed him and his passenger to go on their way. They were not charged.
After the incident became publicly known, the area’s police chief said the police department is conducting an internal investigation into the incident, and he issued the following statement:
“Taking photographs and videos of people that are in plain sight including the police is your legal right. As a matter of fact we invite citizens to do so when they believe it is necessary. We believe that public videos help to protect the police as well as our citizens and provide critical information during police and citizen interaction.”
Bright said his experience should serve as a warning.
“I think the video shows that the police are willing to lie in order to coerce people into doing what they want them to do,” he said. “You just have to know your rights.”
So, what are your rights in Singapore, vis a vis filming or taking photos of a police officer, if you were to encounter a similar situation here?
The relevant law is section 38 of the Public Order Act (POA).
Basically, section 38 states that “any police officer of or above the rank of sergeant, or any CPIB officer, narcotics officer, intelligence officer or immigration officer”, has the right to ask you to either “immediately delete, erase or otherwise destroy the film or picture or to surrender the film or picture to the police officer.”
Do note, however, that the law does not prohibit you from taking photos or filming enforcement officers.
The officers can only order as above only if – if – “he reasonably believes that the film or picture, if exhibited or communicated… prejudices the effective conduct of an ongoing law enforcement operation or investigation, or any intelligence operation; or endangers or will endanger the safety of any law enforcement officer in an ongoing law enforcement operation or investigation, or any intelligence operation.”
In other words, you are allowed to film an officer unless the officer (of police rank sergeant and above, or is from the CPIB, Central Narcotics Bureau, or is an intelligence officer or immigration officer) tells you to stop, if he believes as stated above.
Such an officer is also allowed, under the POA, to “seize any film or picture … and any copy thereof, and any equipment (including a handphone) used or about to be used in the making, exhibition or communication of the film or picture.”
However, if his orders are disputed (whether later or otherwise), he will or may have to show proof that the film or picture “if exhibited or communicated” will prejudice or compromise an ongoing law enforcement activity.
Let’s two some real life examples from recent times.
Wong PJ, posting on his Facebook page on 15 October 2015, related how he had an exchange with an immigration officer at Changi Airport.
Long story short, at one point, Mr Wong “started taking video of the events that would follow.”
He said the officer “leaped forward and tried to snatch my phone but I managed to dodge and reminded him of my rights to take images of public places including public areas within the airport and that even the police have no rights to take away my phone unless they have a warrant . This officer then told me the area is restricted and I cannot take videos of him.”
While Mr Wong may be right that taking photos of “public places” is within his rights (just look at all the tourists snapping away in the airport itself), the issue here is his taking photos of a law enforcement officer.
Besides section 109 of the Customs Act which allows the officer to conduct searches on anyone, the POA also allows the officer to order Mr Wong to stop the recording, to delete the video/pictures, or to seize his handphone or any filming or recording equipment, as explained above.
And, contrary to what Mr Wong believed, the officer does not need a warrant to do any of the above, as is clearly spelt out in section 38.
Mr Wong, therefore, is wrong in most of what he said, with regards to his rights and what the police can do in a situation like this.
The second case we will look at is that of Teo Soh Lung, who was investigated for an alleged Cooling-off Day offence in 2016. (The police did not charge her but instead issued her a warning subsequently. The Singapore courts have ruled that such a warning is without legal weight.)
The police had raided her home while Ms Teo was at home, and a friend who was also present filmed the raid as it was going on. She later posted the video online.
Ms Teo reported that during the raid, the police seized her handphone and her laptop, and had also, incidentally, taken photos of her home.
“I never thought that the police would use the excuse of investigating an offence under the Parliamentary Elections Act to conduct a raid at my home and take photographs of my flat,” she said. “I am shocked.”
Were the police well within their rights to seize Ms Teo’s phone and laptop?
Yes, they were.
The police were also, incidentally, within their rights to search her home, as provided for under section 34 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
So, what do all these mean for you, the average member of the public?
If a situation such as the one involving Jesse Bright happened in Singapore, a police officer here would have different powers or authority from his American counterpart.
The Singapore officer would be able to order Bright to stop filming, and/or to delete his film/photos, and also to seize his phone or any recording device.
But the Singapore officer would have to be able to prove that “he reasonably believe[d] that the film or picture, if exhibited or communicated… prejudices the effective conduct of an ongoing law enforcement operation or investigation.”
And while the North Carolina police department encourages citizens to film their interactions with police officers, in Singapore the authorities have not expressed such explicit support for Singaporeans to do so.
So, it is best to know your rights – as Jesse Bright did – by being aware of what the law itself says, and not what you think the law is, so that you are best able to deal with such a situation.
But are the laws, such as the POA, themselves questionable? Well, that is an argument for another day.