The Senate voted 24-11 on Thursday to pass a bill allowing citizens to sue police who stop people from photographing or videotaping officers in the performance of their duties.
The bill would make police liable for civil litigation if they interfere with someone recording them — as long the officer does not believe that stopping the photographer is necessary in order to enforce the law, protect public safety, preserve a crime scene, or protect the privacy of a victim.
The Senate passed a similar bill last year but it was never raised in the House.
Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Sen. Eric Coleman said it was important preserve the public’s right to record police in action. He pointed to the 1991 beating of Rodney King at the hands of Los Angeles police and an incident in East Haven where Father James Manship was arrested for videotaping police officers harassing Latinos. Both were caught on video by bystanders, he said.
The East Haven footage led to a federal investigation that uncovered a pattern racial profiling and harassment targeting Latinos, Coleman said. “Behavior we all frown upon is brought to light because some citizen is in a position to observe and photograph.”
During the debate that lasted more than four hours, Republicans expressed concerns that there would be times when photographers might impede a police officer from doing their jobs effectively.
Republican Sen. Kevin Witkos, himself a police officer in Canton, said it’s important that police officers are able to react fluidly to situations. He said there are situations when having someone filming them can hinder their ability to react.
Witkos proposed an amendment that would have offered police a defense in lawsuits if they thought that a photographer was intentionally trying to inconvenience or alarm officers.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said the amendment would give police the ability to raise the intent of the photographer in court as a special defense.
“The burden would be on the police officer to prove that. That is not a light burden. Proving intent, as I think any defense lawyer would tell you, is difficult to do,” he said.
However, Majority Leader Martin Looney and Coleman opposed the amendment, saying its scope was drafted too broadly. Looney said the amendment would create such a broad exemption that it would render the bill without meaning.
“It would create a loophole for virtually every possible situation that may occur,” Coleman said.
Though his amendment failed on an 18-14 vote, Witkos was one of four Republicans who voted to pass the bill. He said the presence of cameras also protects police officers because they help shield against false claims. He said new recruits are trained to expect to be on camera “24/7.”
However, he had concerns about how the bill would impact off-duty officers who are hired by a third-party for security work, specifically officers hired as bodyguards for celebrities.
While Witkos and Enfield Republican Sen. John Kissel supported the bill, nine Republicans and two Democrats voted against the measure.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said the bill will force police to make split second decisions with amateur photographers looking over their shoulders.
“Right from the beginning they’re in wrong place at the wrong time and we’re putting the burden of proof of getting them out of the way on law enforcement. It should be the other way around,” he said.
Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, said as his jaw kept dropping “lower and lower” the more he listened to the debate because the bill might allow someone to profit from interfering with police.
“It would be a very sad day for our society where someone could benefit financially for committing a crime,” he said.
The bill will now move to the House of Representatives. Looney said Thursday morning that he is hopeful House leadership will raise the bill before the legislative session ends in less than three weeks.