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Police, ACPO, public set to clash on filming rights

Sussex s.19 seizure showdown seems certain

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The seizure of a film claimed as potential evidence of a violent crime may turn out to have serious implications for police, photographers and the public – though it is still too early to tell whether the eventual outcome will be good, bad or indifferent.

We reported yesterday how Sussex Police had seized a film, shot during an anti-fascist protest over the Bank Holiday weekend, by computer programmer Glenn Williams. A supporter of such events who regularly documents them, Williams also films for legal purposes and told us he would be glad to hand over film voluntarily if it was thought to show evidence of a crime.

The police officer taking the film claimed legal justification under Section 19 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (pdf), which permits the police to seize film or memory sticks discovered "under lawful search" and where there are reasonable grounds to believe they provide evidence of a criminal offence.

So far, so straightforward. However, under s.14 of the same legislation, police may not remove "special procedure material" of a journalistic nature without a warrant. The question therefore arises whether Williams' filming efforts, even though he does not describe himself as "a journalist", is nonetheless of a journalistic nature.

The waters are further muddied by a letter sent out just four days earlier by Andy Trotter, Chair of ACPO’s Media Advisory Group to all Chief Constables. In it, Mr Trotter reminds police chiefs that there are no powers to prevent the public from taking photographs in a public place. Significantly, he goes on: "We must acknowledge that citizen journalism is a feature of modern life."

"Once an image has been recorded, the police have no power to delete or confiscate it without a court order."

This is legal and procedural dynamite. Nick Cloke, Head of Media Relations at Sussex Police spoke to El Reg last night. He said: "I don’t have an axe to grind either way on this issue. I am happy to go with whatever is deemed to be the best interpretation, but applying Section 14 to anything claimed to be citizen journalism is new ground and, to my knowledge, untested legally.

"Taking one interpretation to its extreme to illustrate a point, do we really want to move to a situation where anyone found in the middle of "happy-slapping" a victim can claim their material has journalistic privilege – and refuse to hand their mobile phone over to the police?"

Mr Cloke conceded that in such circumstances, the police would still have the right to seize a film while the courts decided whether or not it constituted "special procedure material", but argued that this would not be very different from the situation as it stands.

The stage appears set for a significant debate - if not outright collision - between ACPO and local police forces. At stake is the question of when and in what circumstances police should be allowed to seize film from the public – and what constitutes "journalistic activity".

Meanwhile, the argument continues over whether the police were right to seize film in this particular instance. According to Cloke, there were two violent incidents that might have been filmed by Williams – and Williams may not even have been aware of the fact that he had filmed one of them.

Williams agrees that this is possible, but remains sceptical. He told us that he has had film or cameras seized by police on three previous occasions. In one case, a complaint went as far as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), who agreed that the police had not dealt correctly with his initial complaint.

The matter was bounced back to the police, who continued to claim that they had been entitled to remove his camera, agreed that a common assault might have been committed against Williams by the police officer involved, but as six months had elapsed - the police took eight to nine months in all to deal with the matter - no further action could be taken.

In the most recent case, he says that he was told that his film was required as possible evidence of a violent assault when "someone in an invalid carriage drove over an officer’s foot". However, he believes the reasons given by police for taking his film are retrospective justification and their actions were actually motivated by spite.

Williams' film remains with the police forensic unit, where it has languished for the last week, and will be returned to him when they have cleared their current backlog and managed to take a look at it. ®

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