Des Moines, Iowa — The ACLU of Iowa has filed an amicus brief in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Robbins v. City of Des Moines, a lawsuit seeking to defend the First Amendment rights of Daniel Robbins to video record police in public.
In May 2018, Robbins filmed and photographed civilian and police cars that were illegally parked in front of no-parking signs near the Des Moines Police station. Police then surrounded and detained him, and seized his camera and cell phone.
Des Moines attorneys Gary Dickey and Glen S. Downey then filed a lawsuit on Robbins’ behalf. The federal district court granted summary judgment for the police, and Robbins appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The ACLU filed its amicus brief to provide the Court with information about the important free speech and racial justice implications of the case.
Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director, said this case is important to protect the right of Iowans to photograph and record the police in public, so long as the observer does not physically interfere with officers in conducting their official duties. “Every federal circuit court which has directly considered the issue has recognized that the First Amendment protects the right to record police,” Bettis Austen said.
The First Amendment protects the right to engage in this type of newsgathering and recording, not only for news camera crews and reporters, but to individuals who are not reporters as well.
"The Robbins case also has important implications for racial justice in our state. Cell phone recordings of police interactions have proved a vital tool to document and deter racial profiling and disproportionate use of force, helping to propel important efforts for reform,” Bettis Austen said.
For example, in 2018, documentation of a police stop of two African American young men by Des Moines Police resulted in a $75,000 settlement and has prompted the Des Moines City Council to consider a city-wide anti-racial profiling ordinance, and helped amplify the need for a state-wide anti-profiling law. Iowa has some of the worst racial disparities in the country at every stage of the criminal justice system, from enforcement of drug laws for simple possession, to disparities in juvenile delinquency, to disparities in the adult prison population.