• Journalists arrested for photographing police in action win series of big court cases
• Judge rules advances in technology can make us all impromptu citizen journalists
By Keith Johnson
Keeping cops honest is a responsibility all freedom-loving Americans share. Thanks to modern technology, that job has become a lot easier. Most United States citizens now have video cameras hardwired into their cell phones that can be activated at a moment’s notice and used to document encounters with peace officers. Of course, this new reality is something that hasn’t exactly been warmly received by many in the law enforcement community.
Citizens are often harassed, arrested and even prosecuted for photographing police despite there being no law that forbids them from doing so. But there’s one man in southern Florida who has made it his mission to not only tell their stories, but also to encourage and instruct people how they too can become one of those who watches the watchers.
This reporter recently spoke with journalist Carlos Miller, whose unfortunate encounter with Miami, Fla. police inspired him to launch the website “Photography is Not a Crime.” Miller is a seasoned crime reporter who worked for several newspapers in the Southwestern U.S. before returning to his native home of Miami in 2005.
In 2007, Miller found himself in a Miami neighborhood known as a haven for drugs and prostitution. As he was doing research for an upcoming article, he came upon five police officers in the process of making an arrest and decided to take some photographs. That’s when things turned ugly.
“The cops said ‘you can’t take our pictures’ and told me to leave,” Miller recounted. “I told them ‘please allow me to do my job’ and continued to photograph them. They eventually came after me. I was tackled, my head was bashed into the sidewalk, my wrist was twisted back and my camera lens and flash were broken. I was really beaten badly and in pain for days.”
Police arrested Miller and charged him with nine misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice.
“There was no law that says you can’t take pictures so they had to make up something,” Miller added. “That’s when I decided to use my experience in journalism to bring attention to this.”
While waiting to go to trial, Miller launched his website and immediately attracted a large audience. “The initial stories about my arrest were getting attention and people around the country were sending me their own stories,” he said. “People talked about similar experiences and I started writing stories about them to highlight that my arrest was not an isolated incident.”
Miller’s case eventually went to trial and he was later cleared of all charges. “I was arrested a couple times after that and have also beaten those charges, so I have no convictions,” he said.
Last November, the Boston Police Department (BPD) threatened to charge Miller with felony witness intimidation after he posted the name, email and phone number of a police spokeswoman and encouraged readers to call her. “The phone number I provided was on the BPD website,” said Miller. “I just wanted to make it easier for my readers so they wouldn’t have to look it up.”
According on Miller, the police spokeswoman had accused one of his colleagues, Taylor Hardy, of committing a crime that could have put Hardy behind bars for up to 10 years. “He called to ask if she had seen a video he took in August,” Miller explained. “It shows a Boston police officer threatening to arrest another videographer on felony battery charges when it was the cop that was actually battering him. The woman said she hadn’t seen the video and that was the extent of the interview.”
But because Miller’s colleague recorded the brief conversation without the woman’s consent, he was threatened with a charge of wiretapping. That’s what compelled Miller to post the phone number and encourage his readers to call and ask that she withdraw the accusation. Instead of backing down, however, BPD went on the offensive.
“They originally said they were just charging me with witness intimidation,” Miller said. “But then they told me that if my readers didn’t stop calling they were going to charge every single one of them with the same thing. So I informed my readers of this and they responded by calling even more. They refused to be intimidated.”
Miller ultimately prevailed. His readers donated to his legal defense fund and he was able to retain a prominent Boston lawyer. “Their whole case just eventually fell apart and they withdrew the charges,” Miller said. “They thought they had some small-time blogger who was just going to back down but soon realized that this is a new era where bloggers can attain a very strong and loyal readership that is willing to mobilize for the right cause.”
Miller isn’t the only one who has successfully challenged Massachusetts’ draconian wiretapping laws. As he explains: “In 2011, there was a landmark case against the BPD that confirmed what we already knew about the law. It stems from the arrest of Simon Glik, who was charged with wiretapping after he was found filming cops on his cell phone. They eventually dropped the charges but he decided to sue them. The police asked the judge to grant them ‘qualified immunity’—meaning that they didn’t know what the law meant and should not be held liable. The judge disagreed and said they should know the law. Glik was allowed to sue and ended up winning $170,000.”
Miller continued: “If you read the case, it says anyone can be a journalist at any given time because of advances in technology. For the first time in history, we have true freedom of the press. All of us can become journalists and help keep our government transparent. It’s a great time we’re living in.”
Keith Johnson in an investigative journalist and creator of the Revolt of the Plebs.