The problem of police decision-making on who is permitted to take photographs of what is highlighted again in a disturbing incident at the weekend, where film was seized at an anti-fascist protest in Brighton.
According to a statement by Sussex Police: “Under Section 19 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act , an officer policing the event seized a video tape from a member of the public. Section 23 of the Act states that this can take place in ‘any place’, providing the officer is lawfully there and has reasonable grounds to believe it provides evidence of a criminal offence.
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“The officer reasonably believed the tape contained evidence of a protester being assaulted by someone taking part in the march. It has been seized temporarily to ensure that evidence cannot be inadvertently lost or altered and will be returned, intact, to the owner as soon as possible.”
This is an interesting development legally and not one that has been heard of elsewhere in the police.
We spoke with the Met, and while they were unable categorically to deny the use of s19 in this fashion, our contact there suggested that in his experience the easiest way to obtain photographic evidence of a crime was “to ask the individual concerned – or their editor where news media were involved”.
What about ACPO? They are in the process of updating their guidelines on the release of images to the media, and have also recently updated their guidance note on the rights of the public to take photos in public places – but have said nothing on this matter.
This may be a one-off – if not, it is worrying. Photographer, activist and blogger Marc Vallee spoke to human rights lawyer Anna Mazzola of Hickman & Rose. She said: “This episode reveals a worrying policy.
“Sussex police clearly think that Section 19 entitles them to remove film and footage from people where they suspect they have evidence of a crime and they can say that they have reason to believe the person may destroy that evidence.
“That is disturbing news for journalists and amateur photographers, particularly those covering public order events. While the police obviously have a duty to prevent and detect crime, they also have to provide some assurance that they will not use Section 19 to seize journalistic material.”