‘Don’t film that’: The rules and risks for recording first responders

HICKORY, N.C. — The flashing lights from first responders often attract attention from nearby spectators, but are you always able to record what you see?

Rick Rouse found a scene outside of his apartment in February that brought police and firefighters to northwest Hickory. A neighbor’s car rolled into a guardrail right outside, and he captured video when a Hickory firefighter approached him.

“Sir, if you would, don’t film that, please,” the firefighter told Rouse.

“Reason why?” he responded.

“Because we’re doing some work right here,” the firefighter responded.

Three months later, those apartments are still empty because of concerns about the retaining wall, but the interaction with the firefighter is still fresh in Rouse’s mind.

“I don’t know what they didn’t want people to see. Maybe they were afraid the car was going to go on over and go through the building completely,” Rouse told Channel 9′s Dave Faherty. “But he was adamant about me not filming that procedure that morning.”

Rouse didn’t stop recording or questioning that firefighter.

“If you don’t mind, you can take some pictures after we’re done, so just don’t film it for us if you don’t mind,” the firefighter told him.

“I really don’t understand that,” Rouse said.

“Well sir, we’re trying to get some work done here,” the firefighter responded.

Know your rights

“It’s really a First Amendment thing,” attorney Mark Jetton Jr. told Faherty.

Jetton watched that video and said Rouse was within his rights to record the firefighters. He says there aren’t many specific statutes when it comes to taking video with your cellphone.

“The law [says] so long as it’s a public place and it’s not delaying or interfering with the investigation, you’re allowed to do it,” Jetton said.

But does that include traffic stops when you’re the driver?

“Really now-a-days, it’s second nature to us.”

North Carolina State Trooper Chris Casey says he’s seen it happen several times. The highway patrol provides training for officers on how to respond.

According to Casey, it’s legal to record a traffic stop, but drivers need to be careful.

“One thing we ask is when we walk up to your car, just don’t suddenly hold the cellphone out the window,” Casey said. “Don’t suddenly bring it toward us as we walk to your car, because at night time, we may not know what it is.”

Faherty asked the Hickory Fire Department about the incident that Rouse recorded. They sent a statement that said: “When our personnel respond to an emergency incident, their priority is the safety and security of the public, first responders, and the scene. We encourage the general public to give emergency personnel due regard and the ability to safely perform their duties.”

Rouse doesn’t believe he was interfering, and he hopes others learn from what happened to him.

“Just know what your rights are,” he said.

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