Viewers of the hit A&E reality series Live PD, which airs in two-hour blocks on Friday and Saturday nights, have come to expect at least two recurring elements as camera crews follow around six police departments from around the country. The first is that officers will be searching for marijuana in vehicles. (And will usually find it.) The second is that civilians idling in cars or on front porches will sometimes say they are not offering their consent to be filmed. Can the show really “out” suspects by broadcasting their faces on live television without permission?
To make sense of this legal quagmire, it helps to know that Live PD is not exactly live. While the program’s control center cuts between the various participating police departments in real time, it’s not airing the same way: Producers require a delay, in the event a gruesome crime occurs or an undercover officer is accidentally filmed, among other reasons. The show’s producers won’t say exactly how long the delay is, though in 2017, executive producer David Doss told NBC that it’s typically several minutes. (A representative for A&E did not follow up with our request for comment.)
Is that long enough to acquire written consent from involved parties to broadcast their image to millions of viewers? In some cases, yes.
Tulsa, Oklahoma resident Randy Wallace was featured on the show in February 2017 and later criticized the police department for implying he was a gang member. In press interviews, Wallace admitted he signed a waiver when a production team member presented it to him. (The Tulsa PD later declined to renew its agreement to be involved with the show.) The production, Wallace said, wanted permission to use his image and likeness.
But not everyone is presented with forms to sign. In Walton County, Florida, a man who was detained on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle and handcuffed on the show said he was never offered the option of signing any forms and was angry he had been depicted as a criminal. (The man owned the car and he was not arrested.)
Legally, the show was probably within its legal rights on both occasions, thanks to the machinations of the right to privacy laws: Namely, if you’re out in public, you don’t have those rights.
“When you’re outside in a public place, you have no expectation of privacy,” Mark Rosenberg, an attorney specializing in intellectual property law, tells Mental Floss. “You can video people and use them on television.”
Of course, there are limitations. Cameras for Live PD typically idle outside private residences unless they’re invited in. Footage of people in doorways is typically captured from where someone passing by would see them from the street.
People asked to sign waivers may have been approached by producers because they’d like to use the footage for publicity purposes—a television commercial, for example, or some other advertisement for the show. “If they’re using someone’s face for advertising, that gets outside whatever newsworthy element may be involved,” Rosenberg says.
Should you ever find yourself detained by police with a full camera crew in tow, don’t expect you need to give them your permission—or withdraw your consent—to be filmed.
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