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You Can Photograph Anything In Plain View In A Public Space Including Law Enforcement Officers And Government Buildings | Robert R. Rowley PS

Robert R. Rowley PS

Attorney at Law


You Can Photograph Anything In Plain View In A Public Space Including Law Enforcement Officers And Government Buildings

You Can Photograph Anything In Plain View In A Public Space Including Law Enforcement Officers And Government Buildings

As an attorney I’ve been asked many times over the decades about the legality of taking photographs and videotaping in both public and private spaces.  Washington State and federal law is quite clear that you have a First Amendment right to photograph anything in plain view in a public space including law enforcement officers, public officials, state and federal buildings.  Law enforcement officers can not confiscate, demand to view, or delete digital photos.  However, you cannot obstruct their law enforcement activities while taking photos.

Please note that private property owners can set different rules for recording and photography as the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private property owners.  Thus, a private business can prohibit photograph on its property.

However, as to videotaping (or audio taping)  the same law enforcement officers or other public officials in both public and private spaces the laws do radically shift from state to state.  The law in 38 states plainly allows citizens to record law enforcement officers, as long as you don’t physically interfere with their work.

Twelve states-California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington-require the consent of all parties for you to record a conversation.  However, all but two states (Massachusetts and Illinois) have ruled that the two party consent laws do not apply to on-duty law enforcement officer (or anyone in public).

In other words, it’s technically legal in those 48 states (including Washington and Idaho) to openly record public officials and on-duty law enforcement officers.

The federal statute covering the interception and disclosure of wire communications is codified at 18 U.S.C. § 2511. The statute is the blueprint for many of the state statutes in this area of the law. It requires one-party consent and states it is not unlawful “for a person not acting under the color of state law to intercept a wire, oral, or electronic communication where such person is a party to the communication or where one of the parties to the communication has given prior consent to such interception unless such communication is intercepted for the purpose of committing any criminal or tortuous act in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States or of any state.” 18 U.S.C. §2511(d).

Washington State law takes issue with audio and video recordings because of their audio element claiming that the sound recording is akin to surreptitiously eavesdropping on a phone call.    Thus, you need the consent of both parties to a conversation (whether by phone or videotaping) before you to hit “record”.

There are of course various exceptions to the law which are codified in RCW 9.73.030.