Federal judge blocks Arizona law limiting police shooting

PHOENIX — A federal judge on Friday blocked enforcement of a new Arizona law restricting how the public and journalists can film police, in agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and several media organizations that have supported that it violated the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge John J. Tuchi issued a preliminary injunction that bars enforcement of the law when it is due to go into effect Sept. 24. The quick decision came after Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and the Maricopa County District Attorney and Sheriff’s Office told the judge they had no intention of defending the law. They were named defendants in the lawsuit filed last month.

The law was signed into law by the Republican-controlled Legislature over the unified opposition of Democrats and signed by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey on July 6.

This makes it illegal to knowingly film police officers 8 feet away or less if the officer tells the person to stop. And on private property, an officer who decides someone is interfering or the area is unsafe can order the person to stop filming even if the recording is done with the owner’s permission.

The penalty is a misdemeanor that would likely result in a fine without jail time.

KM Bell, an ACLU lawyer who lobbied against the bill in the Legislative Assembly and was in court Friday, said he was pleased the judge acted quickly.

“We are extremely pleased that Arizonans do not have their constitutional rights violated and their ability to register police criminalized by this law,” Bell said.

Bystander cellphone videos are widely credited with exposing police misconduct — such as with the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis officers — and reshaping the conversation about police transparency. But Republican lawmakers in Arizona say the legislation was needed to limit people with cameras who deliberately obstruct officers.

Tuchi has given the Legislative Assembly a week to decide if she wants to defend the law. The ACLU and media groups are calling for a permanent injunction.

Republican Representative John Kavanagh, a retired police officer who sponsored the law, said he was “taken by surprise” when Brnovich did not move to defend the law.

“I assumed the attorney general would be doing his job as a state attorney and defending a law passed by the state,” Kavanagh said. “We’re trying to get together with the Speaker (of the House) and the Speaker (of the Senate) and see if the Legislative Assembly will defend it, but there’s also the possibility that an outside group will step in.”

Brnovich’s office is responsible for upholding state laws. But in this case, his spokeswoman, Katie Conner, said that because the attorney general does not have enforcement power in these types of cases, he was not the right party to prosecute.

Matt Kelley, an attorney who represented the news outlets that filed the lawsuit, argued in his court papers that Brnovich was wrong. He noted that, by law, the attorney general can step in and enforce laws that county attorneys normally would.

Kavanagh argued that allowing people to record the police at close range while they attend to law enforcement, such as making arrests or dealing with a disturbed person, could put officers at risk, and noted that he had made several changes to address the ACLU’s concerns. These include changing the restriction from 16 feet to 8 feet.

“So I think that’s incredibly reasonable,” he said. “And if what’s causing the problem is me limiting it to just these law enforcement characters in all encounters, how ironic it is that trying to limit the scope of the government’s reach is unconstitutional. But I guess that’s the world we live in.

Kelley said the law was very problematic. He praised Tuchi for quickly agreeing that the law fell short of the requirements necessary to restrict First Amendment protections to filming law enforcement activities.

“There was nothing in the law that said the person recording had to interfere with law enforcement or harass officers or do anything that would create a danger or a distraction,” Kelley said. “All it prohibited was just standing there, videotaping. And since that’s a First Amendment protected activity, that law was prima facie unconstitutional.

The original legislation has been amended so that it only applies to certain types of police actions, including the questioning of suspects and encounters involving mental health or behavioral issues. It exempts people who are subject to police interaction, or in a stopped car.

In similar cases, six of the nation’s 12 US appeals courts have ruled in favor of allowing the police to record without restriction. Shortly after Arizona’s law was signed, the Denver 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a reporter and YouTube blogger’s lawsuit against a suburban Denver police department could range from l ‘before. The blogger said an officer blocked him from recording a traffic stop in 2019.

The Phoenix Police Department, which oversees the nation’s fifth-largest city, has come under fire in recent years for its use of force, which disproportionately affects black and Native American residents.

Journalists and photographers said the law would make it almost impossible to do their jobs, especially during massive events like protests. Outlets that have sued include Phoenix Newspapers Inc., parent company of The Arizona Republic; gray television; ScrippsMedia; KPNX-TV; Fox television stations; NBCUniversal Media (parent company of NBC News); the Arizona Association of Broadcasters; States Newsroom; Arizona Newspaper Association; and the National Association of Press Photographers.

The Associated Press filed a brief from a friend of the court urging Tuchi to prevent enforcement. AP lawyers said photographers in particular could get caught up when covering rallies, which could limit their ability to capture all interactions between police and protesters.

About Charles D. Goolsby

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