Volume 100 -- Issue 4 Georgetown Law Journal

Bad Footage: Surveillance Laws, Police Misconduct, and the Internet

On the night of March 3, 1991, Rodney King was savagely beaten by Los Angeles police officers. The ensuing trial of four of those officers charged with police brutality resulted in three acquittals and one nonverdict; the City of Los Angeles was subsequently engulfed in riots that lasted for days. Those same four officers were eventually charged by the federal government with civil rights violations, and two were found guilty. A national dialogue emerged regarding the presence and frequency of police brutality, racism in law enforcement, and general concerns about the power invested in those meant to protect the citizenry. All these events came to pass because someone just happened to videotape the beating of Rodney King.

George Holliday gave his footage of the beating to KTLA, a Los Angeles television station, and the eight-minute tape went public; the airing of the tape likely influenced the decision to prosecute the officers. Had Holliday not woken to sirens outside his apartment that evening, and had he not decided to take his Sony Handycam out onto his terrace, conceivably, Rodney King would remain an unknown man today, a nameless victim of police misconduct. Had Holliday not made that tape, investigations and inquiries into local law enforcement practices would not have become a politically salient and viable talking point. George Holliday’s video changed public perceptions of the police force and opened national discussions on the interaction of law enforcement and race. In short, his video contributed to justice. Ironically, in recording the beating of Rodney King, George Holliday may have committed a crime.

Surveillance may naturally connote a practice which the state is more likely to engage in. Generally, however, surveillance laws do not distinguish between state and non-state actors. Recordings made by any person potentially implicate surveillance concerns. Twelve states require that all parties involved consent to a recording. In these states, barring some exceptions (probable cause and the like), police cannot record an individual without his consent. According to the text of the statutes in these states, the same goes for the citizen: he cannot record another person, including a police officer, without the person’s consent.  Although some state courts have interpreted the statute to avoid this result, others have not.

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