New Jersey Appellate Court Recognizes First Amendment Right to Videorecord Police

From Ramos v. Flowers (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Sept. 21, 2012):

[W]e conclude that a reasonable police officer in 2006 could not have believed he had the absolute right to preclude Ramos from videotaping any gang activities or any interaction of the police with gang members for the purposes of making a documentary film on that topic.

The facts, as alleged by Ramos, are:

Ramos is a documentary filmmaker. In 2006, he was working on a project about the emergence of gangs in Trenton. Flowers is a police officer employed by the Trenton Police Department. Ramos contends that he had five encounters with the Trenton Police during the time he was filming the activities of various members of the “Sex Money Murder” Bloods sect, one of the largest Bloods gang units in Trenton. Three of the encounters involved Flowers. He alleges that Flowers’ actions during those three encounters interfered with his constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, as well as his right to be free from unlawful police search and seizure.

On May 12, 2006, Ramos attended a birthday party in Trenton. Several known gang members were also in attendance. They were socializing and drinking alcohol “out front of private property.” When the Trenton police arrived at the scene, Ramos was filming and “had positioned his vehicle in such a way so that its headlights shone on the participants of the party.” Ramos explained what he was doing to the police. Nevertheless, Ramos was arrested and charged with obstructing traffic, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4–67; improper parking, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4–135; leaving an unattended vehicle running, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4–137; and obstructing a public passage on a sidewalk, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:33–7.

In another incident that occurred shortly thereafter, Ramos was “filming on a public sidewalk and creating no hazard or interference with anyone else. Trenton Police Officers arrived at the scene … and very sternly demanded [that Ramos] turn his camera off.”

On May 20, 2006, Ramos was driving in Trenton, “again in the process of obtaining video for the documentary.” Police officers pulled him over when they noticed that he was filming. They cited Ramos for improperly parking within an intersection, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4–138(a). According to Ramos, he was only parked within the intersection because he had been pulled over by the police.

On July 2, 2006, Ramos arrived at a Trenton park where police officers were “shutting down” a barbeque attended by a large number of known gang members. Ramos started filming the interaction between the police and the gang members. He was asked by the police to move across the street, but allowed to continue filming once he did so.

Approximately ten minutes after Ramos had relocated, Flowers approached him and told him that “something would happen to him” if he did not stop filming. Flowers also told him that he was going to investigate his “so-called” documentary. Nevertheless, Ramos continued filming from across the street and only stopped when he had finished.

On July 6, 2006, the Trenton police responded to a call from the Trenton Public Library to investigate a meeting being held by known gang members on its premises. One of Ramos’s sources gave him a tip that he should go to the library to film the events as they unfolded. Once Ramos arrived at the library, Flowers told him he was interfering with a police investigation, adding: “I am sick of you already, I am sick of seeing you, I do not want to hear you anymore, you are not allowed here anymore.” Ramos asserts that Flowers grabbed his video camera and put it in his car. Flowers then told Ramos: “If I see you again … I am locking you up and I don’t care what for … you better not let me see you again … watch what happens.”

Ramos contends that he stopped working on his documentary after the July 6 encounter at the library because he feared Flowers would arrest him for no reason and ruin his life. Ramos subsequently licensed some of his gang footage to the History Channel, for which he was paid. He does not allege that he suffered any emotional distress, physical harm, or damage to his property.

In January 2007, the citations Ramos received on May 12, 2006 were dismissed, with one exception. The citation for obstructing a sidewalk was downgraded to a city ordinance violation, after which Ramos pled guilty and paid a fine.