Hialeah State House Member's Proposed Law Would Make Criminals Out of Citizens Like Darnella Frazier

A new proposed Florida law would make it a crime to record video of police officers from less than 30 feet away.
A new proposed Florida law would make it a crime to record video of police officers from less than 30 feet away. Photo by Stewart F. House/Getty Images
Update: Florida Rep. Alex Rizo, reached by New Times on August 9, says the bill came from his concern over people on social-media getting in officer’s faces and disrupting their work for money or popularity.

“They’re asking questions that have nothing to do with anything going on in the line of duty at the moment. People are posting this, people are monetizing this,” says Rizo, who filed a similar bill in March which died in committee hearings. “They’re distracting officers from their line of duty and thereby creating a dangerous situation for the general public.”

Law enforcement entities like the Police Benevolent Association and the Florida Fraternal Order of Police have already shown their support for the bill, Rizo says, and some municipalities, including Miami Beach, have also supported the legislation.

Rizo rejects the assertion that his bill is meant to infringe on anyone’s First Amendment rights and ability to record, arguing instead that the bill is meant to create a safe distance for people to do so. “This does not criminalize recording police officers. This does not criminalize asking questions,” he insists.

When 28-year-old Khalid Vaughn walked into the elevator lobby at the Royal Palms Hotel on Collins Avenue on July 26, more than a dozen Miami Beach Police officers were circling a young Black man who was handcuffed on the floor. Holding a white plastic bag in one hand and cell phone in the other, Vaughn attempted to record the scene unfolding roughly 15 feet away as two officers kicked and head-slammed the handcuffed man — until officers charged after him, too.

Hotel surveillance video and body-worn-camera footage show one officer tackling Vaughn into a concrete pillar and two other officers repeatedly elbowing and punching him in his head and ribs after he falls to the floor. The attack left the citizen journalist scratched, bruised, and bloodied. To top it off, he was charged with resisting arrest with violence and impeding a police investigation.

Though Black Lives Matter activists have criticized Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle of turning a blind eye to police misconduct in the past, she sent shockwaves through the county Monday afternoon when she stood beside Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements to announce that five MBPD officers were being charged with one count of misdemeanor battery apiece for what transpired July 26. Rundle’s office also dropped all charges against Vaughn.

Though Monday’s arrests seem like a win for citizen journalists — people like Khalid Vaughn and then-17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who filmed Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for nine minutes as he pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck — a new law proposed in the Florida House of Representatives seeks to make it a crime to do what Vaughn did.

On July 19, ahead of the 2022 legislative session that will begin in January, Republican Rep. Alex Rizo of Hialeah filed Florida House Bill 11, which would make it a second-degree misdemeanor for any person to stand within 30 feet of an officer performing a "legal duty" and to "interrupt, disrupt, [or] hinder" the officer, or otherwise directly or indirectly harass them after being warned to keep away.

Rizo did not respond to multiple requests for comment from New Times via phone, email, and voicemail.

"Under this bill, Darnella Frazier, who filmed George Floyd’s murder, and all the bystanders within 30 feet who pleaded with the officer to stop killing George Floyd could be arrested and prosecuted for a second-degree misdemeanor," wrote American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Florida legislative director Kara Gross in an emailed statement to New Times.

Proponents of police accountability, including leaders from the ACLU, have lambasted the legislation, arguing that the bill would make criminals of citizens who try to record instances of police brutality.

The bill follows similar legislation, championed last year by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, which set harsh restrictions and criminal penalties for protesters. DeSantis' "anti-riot bill" also restricted local governments' ability to reduce police budgets, part of a nationwide push by right-wing politicians to rebuke "defund the police" movements.

The ACLU's Gross sees the two bills as part of a campaign to strike back at protesters and people of color who demonstrated against police brutality last summer.

"This is a clear rebuke to Black and brown Floridians’ demands for police accountability and racial justice. It works concerningly in concert with Gov. DeSantis’ unconstitutional anti-protest bill, which needlessly criminalizes the right to protest," she said in her emailed statement. "It is no coincidence that these bills were introduced by politicians who harshly criticized last year’s historic protests for racial justice."

South Florida reporter and photojournalist Carlos Miller started the police watchdog blog, Photography Is Not a Crime, in 2007 after being arrested when he refused to stop recording five Miami Police officers as they threatened a man with arrest on Biscayne Boulevard.

Miller, who is familiar with the First Amendment's freedoms of speech and of the press, told the officers he was within his rights to record police on public property.

"They beat the shit out of me and threw me in jail on charges of resisting an officer," says Miller, who occasionally writes about Florida's cannabis industry for New Times.

For Miller, the proposed Florida House bill comes off as an attempt to avoid accountability for bad cops and wrest power from regular people.

"As citizens, we don't have much power over police, but we do have the power to record them and expose them. We don't have to say one word or distract them — just record them," Miller says. "Rather than clean up police departments of bad cops, they try to pass laws to protect bad cops."

By Miller's estimation, Darnella Frazier had to have been within ten feet of Chauvin and the other officers involved in Floyd's arrest, well within the bounds that would have made her actions a crime under Rizo's proposed Florida law, yet Miller points out that she did not interfere with officers by recording. If the officers decided her presence was impeding them, Miller warns that the officers could have used this type of law to arrest her.

There are already laws on the books that prohibit citizens from obstructing police business. The new legislation would merely make it easier for people to be prosecuted if an officer were to claim they were harassed or impeded.

"They always try 'resisting arrest' or 'resisting a police order' — charges that don't always stick. Now they're trying to find a law that will stick," Miller says.

The 30-foot prohibition would make it significantly harder for people to capture instances where police are unlawfully or abusively arresting people, not to mention raising the possibility that an officer might simply lie about the distance in order to justify an arrest, Miller adds.

Miller, whose blog's tagline is "Little Brother Watching Big Brother," argues that there's no reason police departments should object to citizens recording their actions.

"Like the government always tries to tell us: 'If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't be afraid of being recorded,'" he says.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos