A Wilmington police officer was caught on camera telling an Uber driver that it’s against the law to record police.
There is no such law.
Now the Wilmington Police Department has launched an internal investigation into the Feb. 26 incident.
Jesse Bright, a criminal defense lawyer in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, was driving for Uber to cut down on student loans. He said he was pulled over on Feb. 26 after picking up a passenger. Police pulled Bright over for coming from a “known drug house” that police were surveilling, Bright said.
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Bright began recording on his cellphone when he was pulled over. The passenger was asked to exit the vehicle and submit to a search. When Bright continued to record the interaction, an unidentified Wilmington Police officer confronted him and told him to stop recording.
In one of three videos Bright posted on Facebook, the following exchange occurs:
Officer: “Hey bud, turn that off, OK?”
Bright: “No, I’ll keep recording, thank you. It’s my right.”
Officer: “Don’t record me. You got me?”
Bright: “Look, you’re a police officer on duty. I can record you.”
Officer: “Be careful because there is a new law. Turn it off or I’ll take you to jail.”
Bright: “For recording you? What is the law?”
Officer: “Step out of the car.”
Bright: “What are you arresting me for? I’m sitting here in my car. I’m just recording in case anything happens. I’m surrounded by five police officers.”
Officer: “You’re being a jerk.”
Bright: “I’m scared right now. I’m not being a jerk. I’m recording in case anything happens.”
Officer: “You better hope we don’t find something in your car.”
Bright then repeatedly told the officer that he did not consent to his car being searched.
Taking photographs and videos of people that are in plain sight including the police is your legal right. As a matter of fact we invite citizens to do so when they believe it is necessary.
Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous
Bright said he refused to get out of the car several times and kept his door locked. The officer tried to pull the door open several times, he said.
The officer called for a K-9 unit, and the officer and the unit both searched his vehicle. Bright also was searched, he said, before he and his passenger were told they were free to go. Law enforcement found nothing illegal in Bright’s vehicle, he said, and he wasn’t charged.
Bright said he asked a New Hanover County sheriff’s deputy who also was present if it was against the law to record police. He said the deputy told him it was illegal and that the law had been recently passed.
The command to stop filming was a violation of his constitutional rights, Bright said.
“The WPD and (deputy) acting together to tell me that there is a new law where you can be arrested for filming the police are absolutely untrue, and I worry that this directive is systematic and not isolated,” Bright said. “The full search of my vehicle and my person without my consent, based on a K-9 search that indicated absolutely nothing, are also a violation of my constitutional rights.”
Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said in a statement that the public is encouraged to record interactions with police.
“Taking photographs and videos of people that are in plain sight including the police is your legal right,” Evangelous said. “As a matter of fact we invite citizens to do so when they believe it is necessary. We believe that public videos help to protect the police as well as our citizens and provide critical information during police and citizen interaction.”
The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office also released a statement:
“Sheriff McMahon ... believes it is clear that officers were incorrect in stating that it was illegal to record the encounter,” Lt. Jason August wrote. “Not only does the Sheriff agree that it is legal to record encounters, he invites citizens to do so.”
Each officer and deputy in the departments were sent information clarifying citizens’ rights to record encounters, according to Wilmington Police Department spokeswoman Linda Rawley Thompson and August. Thompson declined to answer further questions or identify the officer.
“Obviously it could have been a lot worse,” Bright said. “Which is what I’d like to prevent from happening.”
Staff writer Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.
Abbie Bennett: 919-836-5768; @AbbieRBennett