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What to do if you are detained or arrested at conventions

A demonstrator is arrested in downtown Chicago during a protest against the NATO Summit in May 2012. (Mickey H. Osterreicher)

As a follow-up to my previous "What to know about covering the conventions," the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) has been working with a number of organizations in order to provide support for journalists covering the U.S. national political conventions in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., this month and next. Some things for those journalists to keep in mind:

When covering any story it is important to always have certain items with you, such as: government-issued photo identification (i.e. valid driver's license), press credential(s) or press identification card(s) (if you have any), credit card(s) and some cash (in case you need to post bond). For its members NPPA also has available for purchase a member identification which some have found useful.

If a police officer orders you to move, it is advisable to comply with the request. How far you move is something that you will have to decide for yourself. If you believe that the order is not a reasonable one, ask to speak to a supervisor or the public information officer (PIO) if that is possible. It is important to be aware that most police officers do not like to be questioned or challenged once they have told you to do--or not do--something and a mere hesitation, question, or request may result in your detention or arrest. Only you can make that judgment call as to what to do.

If you are questioned or detained, remember to remain calm and act professionally. Do not get into an argument about your rights. If you are able to have a reasonable discussion that is one thing but if it becomes apparent that the officer is not interested in your point of view it is usually best to move on. Discretion is the better part of valor. If you are told that you are not free to leave or under arrest it is strongly advised that you immediately do what you are told. Officers deem anything less than full compliance as resisting arrest and will then escalate the force they believe is necessary to effectuate that arrest. It is also important that you identify yourself as a journalist as often as possible so there is no question who you are or what your purpose was in being there. At the first appropriate moment, request that a commanding officer or the PIO be notified that a journalist is being detained or has been arrested.

A journalist photographs at a protest against the NATO Summit in May 2012 in front of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home. (Mickey H. Osterreicher)

While covering these events police may ask to see your images, recordings, or files. Be aware that you do not have to consent to such a request. They may try to intimidate, coerce, or threaten you into doing so but consent must be voluntary. You should know that absent consent or exigent circumstances, an officer may not seize your camera, notebook, laptop, or cellphone. Even when police do seize a camera or other device they cannot view its contents without a proper warrant. There have been instances where police have ordered journalists to delete files or have exercised self-help by deleting those files themselves.

For many of the reasons listed above it is important that journalists work in pairs or groups so that someone may be able to notify those of us working to protect your rights that you have been arrested or are in police custody. Another suggestion is that, to the extent possible, start recording events before a situation becomes a problem and continue to record for as long as possible. Such recordings may be the best evidence to refute whatever you may be charged with.

If you are arrested it is crucial to remember that anything you say may be used against you and possibly lead to additional charges. Tell the police you are a journalist but so not say anything else about what happened, how it happened or why it happened. The charges against journalists arrested in these situations are usually misdemeanors, violations, or infractions. Such charges may include but are not limited to: disorderly conduct, failure to disperse, trespassing, unlawful assembly, disturbing the peace, failure to follow a police order, and obstruction. If you are arrested expect to be handcuffed behind your back (with traditional metal handcuffs or plastic zip-tie cuffs). You will also have to be processed, which includes having your fingerprints and photograph taken and your personal information run through a national computer check for any previous criminal record or outstanding wants (other law enforcement agency looking for you) or warrants.

Once that process is complete--which may take hours depending on the number of those arrested and the number of officers assigned to booking--and depending on the charges, bail will be set. Bail acts as a monetary guarantee that you will return for further court proceedings. Sometimes you may be released on your own recognizance (no money required), but that is unlikely if you are from out of town. In most cases you may be able to post a bond (another form of bail) or have someone do that for you.

The type of bond most often used for the types of charges listed above is known as a Signature or I-Bond. Such a bond requires that you post a minimal amount of money (i.e. $75.00 - $200.00) by cash or credit card. It is important that you receive and securely keep your bond receipt because it usually contains all the information for your next court appearance, including the date and location. You will also need that receipt in order get your money back once your case has been adjudicated. If you fail to appear in court, the money posted will be forfeited to the court, an arrest warrant will be issued, and once found you may be arrested again.

I have posted an extensive blog on this subject that I will continually update as more information becomes available. In the meantime the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) has recently made available a mobile app for reporters that "gives reporters in the field immediate access to legal resources, particularly in situations where newsgathering or access may be stymied."

AUTHOR'S DISCLAIMER: This blog is not intended to be legal advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. It is not possible to anticipate every situation. Laws and regulations vary from one area to another and federal, state, or local laws may apply. Anyone seeking legal advice should contact an attorney in their area of the country familiar with criminal and First Amendment law.

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