Wake Forest police drop charges against man who recorded arrest

When police in Wake Forest arrested Robert Johnson because he refused to stop videotaping a friend’s arrest, they raised questions about a person’s rights when it comes to recording law enforcement officers – an issue that has gained national attention.

Johnson, 23, of North Raleigh was charged on Feb. 27 with resisting and obstructing an officer, and his cellphone was seized. After an internal investigation, police dropped the charges and returned Johnson’s phone on March 11, and a town spokesman said this week that “corrective action” was taken.

Johnson said he was not satisfied with the resolution of his case. He filed a complaint against Officer S. Woods with Wake Forest Police on May 22. He said Woods had intimidated him, tried to break his phone and hurt his left shoulder, causing him to see a doctor the next day.

Citizen videos have brought attention to police actions nationwide and have prompted debate about what happens when an officer objects to being recorded.

A bystander in North Charleston, S.C., recorded a police officer fatally shooting Walter Scott in the back in April. Last summer, witnesses recorded video of a New York police officer using a chokehold on Eric Garner, who died.

The First Amendment protects citizens who record law enforcement officers, said Scott Holmes, a law professor at N.C. Central University in Durham. As long as people aren’t distracting or interfering with police, they are legally allowed to record, he said.

ACLU phone app

“The Constitution is the only applicable law that clearly establishes that people have the right to collect information from public officials in public forums,” said Holmes, who volunteers with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

In May, the ACLU of North Carolina introduced a mobile app that allows people who record video of police to send the footage directly to the organization.

“This is about government officials being responsible and accountable to the people,” said Carolyna Manrique, staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina. “That includes filming police officers as they carry out their duties.”

Some law enforcement officials might not realize that people are allowed to record them, said UNC-Chapel Hill law professor David Ardia.

“There isn’t sufficient training of police officers to understand what they can and can’t do in those situations,” Ardia said. “They tend to react very emotionally.”

Johnson, who attends Wake Tech Community College, said he was arrested by Raleigh police in 2013 for assaulting emergency personnel. Since then, he said, he tries to record any arrest he witnesses.

Wake Forest Police Department officers were called to Pat Murnane’s Irish Pub on Main Street on Feb. 27 because of a fight, town spokesman Bill Crabtree said. Johnson began recording on his phone as police handcuffed his friend.

“I’m just protecting my man’s civil liberties,” Johnson says in the video he posted on YouTube about a week ago. By Friday, it had drawn more than 14,000 views.

Woods wrote in a search warrant application that he saw Johnson videotaping inside the pub. Johnson stayed out of the way as officers made an arrest, Woods wrote. He then followed the officers outside, where bystanders “crowded” them.

Woods wrote that Johnson was talking, and it distracted him and delayed the police investigation. In the video, Woods approaches Johnson and asks if he’s been recording.

‘We’re taking the phone’

“Here’s the deal, if you’re recording the arrest, we’re taking the phone,” Woods said in the video.

The video becomes shaky and the noise becomes muffled before Woods can be heard saying, “All you had to do was listen.”

After the charge against him was dropped and his phone was returned, Johnson said he was uncertain of his next steps and would consider filing a lawsuit against the town.

“I know that they’re not going to fire their police officer,” Johnson said. “The only thing I can think (to make it right) is money … which is really sad because it’s not really coming out of their pockets, it’s coming out of ours.”

Crabtree said the case was closed and the police department would not comment further.

Although courts have ruled that citizens have the right to record the police, the idea has been slow to trickle down to police departments, Ardia said.

When confronted by an officer and told to stop recording, people could assert their rights, Ardia said. But an officer unfamiliar with the law – or one who ignores it – could make an arrest anyway. In that case, the court system might sort it out.

Wake Forest police Capt. Darren Abbacchi said the department has been educating officers on the rights of citizens who record them. There is no formal training course for officers to learn about how to handle people who are taking pictures or shooting video, he said.

Hankerson: 919-829-4802;

Twitter: @mechelleh