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A Wilmington police sergeant is shown on video instructing a citizen who was pulled over for a traffic stop that he is not allowed to record the interaction due to a new state law prohibiting the recording of police interactions.
Shortly after that, a New Hanover County Sheriff's deputy agrees with the officer that there is a new state law. There is no such law in North Carolina.
The video comes from defense attorney Jesse Bright, who also drives for Uber in his spare time. Bright said he was making a round trip for a customer on Feb. 26 and was stopped shortly after the passenger got back into the vehicle.
The passenger was asked to exit the vehicle and submit to a search. The location where Bright stopped was described as a "drug house" by an officer heard on the video.
When Bright kept recording the interaction, Wilmington Police Sergeant Kenneth Becker, confronted him and told him to stop recording.
In an interview Wednesday, Bright said he's confident the officers knew the information they were giving was false.
"They should know--I'm sure they do know--that it's legal to record police," Bright said.
Officer: Hey bud, turn that off, OK?Driver: No, I’ll keep recording. Thank you. It’s my right.Officer: Don’t record me. You got me?Driver: Look, you’re a police officer on duty. I can record you.Officer walks to driver’s side of vehicleOfficer: Be careful because there is a new law. Turn it off or I’ll take you to jail.Driver: For recording you? What is the law?Officer: Step out of the car.Driver: What are you arresting me for? I’m sitting here in my car. I’m just recording in case anything happens. I’m surrounded by five police officers.Officer: You’re being a jerk.Driver: I’m scared right now. I’m not being a jerk. I’m recording in case anything happens.Officer: You better hope we don’t find something in your car?Driver: You’re not searching my car?Officer: I’m going to search your car.Driver: You’re not searching my car.Officer calls for K-9 unitDriver: Bring the K-9s. I don’t care. I know my rights.Officer: I hope so. I know what the law is.Driver: I know the law. I’m an attorney, so I would hope I know what the law is.Officer: And an Uber driver?
Bright said he decided to record because he was being asked several questions. He said after being told he would be taken to jail, Sergeant Becker attempted to open his door, but Bright said he held on tight and wouldn't let him in.
Linda Thompson with the Wilmington Police Department said an internal affairs investigation started last Friday, when police became aware of the incident involving the Mobile Field Force. She would not identify the sergeant involved and said police would not be able to comment until the investigation is over.
When asked if it's the policy of the Wilmington Police Department to instruct citizens that it is illegal to film traffic stops, Thompson said, "it is not."
Chief Ralph Evangelous issued the following statement Wednesday in response to the videos:
“Taking photographs and videos of people that are in plain sight including the police is your legal right. As a matter of fact we invite citizens to do so when they believe it is necessary. We believe that public videos help to protect the police as well as our citizens and provide critical information during police and citizen interaction.”
The WPD stated that each officer will be given this statement to read as well.
Lt. Jerry Brewer with the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office said there is no internal investigation in that department because their deputy did not violate anything.
Brewer would not identify the deputy involved. He said it has been thoroughly ingrained in deputies that all their interactions are recorded on body cameras. A state law signed last year prevents the release of the video captured on the cameras without a court order.
Another statement from the sheriff's office indicates the deputy has been counseled and that staff members are ensuring each deputy is aware that citizens can record encounters.
Sheriff McMahon has viewed the Uber driver’s video and believes it is clear that Officers were incorrect in stating that it was illegal to record the encounter. Not only does the Sheriff agree that it is legal to record encounters, he invites citizens to do so. As a result, the Deputy involved has been counseled.Additionally, in keeping with Sheriff McMahon’s practice of openness and transparency with the citizens that we serve, he has instructed his Staff to ensure that each Deputy has been provided with information about the citizen’s right to record encounters with law enforcement officers.
A K-9 was brought in and apparently indicated the presence of narcotics, which led officers to do a full search of the vehicle.
Bright sent an email explaining what he says happened during the stop:
At that time, the K-9 unit arrived at scene. I repeatedly asked the Sergeant and the K-9 what the dog's indicator was, to indicate that he smelled narcotics in the vehicle. They refused to tell me. The K-9 lead the dog around my car 1 time, in which the dog did nothing but sniff the vehicle. He didn't seem to make any indication at all towards the vehicle, besides sniffing in the places that the K-9 told him to sniff. After the sniff was done, the Sgt immediately went into my vehicle without my permission, and did a full search, checking all areas of the car, and pulling everything out of the center console and glove box. During the search, I was told I had to let them search my body as well, which they did. He found absolutely nothing illegal in my vehicle, or my person, and eventually walked back to his car. Another officer told me that me and my Uber passenger were free to go.
Bright said his constitutional rights were violated by the command to stop recording and a subsequent search of his vehicle, for which he did not consent. He said he believes the officers did have a reason behind giving the false information.
"It's definitely in their best interest to have the only copy of the video, but it's not within their rights to have the only copy in an incident," Bright said. "If the only recording of an incident is on their camera, they kind of control if that gets released or sometimes there can be a malfunction with it."
He added that he thinks this problem could go further than this single incident.
"I think it probably is systemic, it's probably something that at least the lower officers do as a habit, telling people to turn the video, just in case something happens, they have all the copies of the video," Bright said.
Irena Como, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said this is the first incident like this they've seen captured on video.
"It’s very concerning the Wilmington police department is conveying inaccurate information in the video," Como said. “We’ve heard reports of this but we’ve never seen It captured on video before. The thing that jumps out is what if this was not an attorney, what if this was someone who didn’t know his rights or how to assert them? How would that encounter have gone then? So, is this something that is happening more frequently?”
Como said the ACLU will continue to monitor the situation to see how both agencies involved deal with the incident.