Police in England can seize your camera as evidence

Stock image (c) iStockphoto

Earlier today, I sent out a quick tweet warning potential photographers at the ongoing London Riots that police could potentially seize their cameras as evidence. Unsurprisingly, that tweet was challenged, referencing the I'm a Photographer, not a Terrorist 'bust card'.

Everything on the 'bust card' is 100% correct, but there is a legal power police have to seize evidence - any evidence - of a crime, whether the 'evidence' is a bloodied knife, a brick that has been used by a rioter, or video footage recorded on a mobile phone. And yes, that does include any stills or video footage you have.

Enter the Police and Criminal Evidence Act

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) of 1984, under section 19 subclause 3, "The constable may seize anything which is on the premises if he has reasonable grounds for believing that it is evidence in relation to an offence which he is investigating, and that it is necessary to seize it in order to prevent the evidence being concealed, lost, altered or destroyed." It is worth pointing out that "premises" in this context refers to "any place", as per PACE s23.

In theory, that means that police can seize any recording device if they believe it has been used to record a crime. Say, if you are out photographing a riot, and you take a photo at the exact moment somebody is throwing a petrol bomb, and a police officer spots you, believing that you are the only person who has a record of the crime taking place, for example.

In practice, this means that UK police can seize your whole recording device, whether that is a mobile phone, a camera, or anything else that can be used to record data.

Why your camera would get seized

The reason why your whole camera would get seized, is that police aren't familiar with every camera, and it isn't always possible to ascertain whether an image is stored on internal memory, on a memory card, etc. In addition, in order to be forensically significant, it is preferred that the photos are removed from the camera by forensic examiners: They can then match the clock on your camera to the photos embedded in the EXIF data, for example, to verify exactly when the photo was taken.

It is worth noting that police do not have the right to delete any of your photos (not without a court order, anyway), and that you will get your recording device back in due course.

Can you just refuse to hand it over?

I would certainly demand a receipt for it, but refusing outright isn't necessarily the best approach, nor is the 'scorched earth' approach of trying to delete the photos in an effort to stop them from taking your camera. Deleting images would be seen as perverting the course of justice, and besides the images could easily be recovered anyway.

In addition, constables have the power to use 'reasonable  and necessary force', under section 117 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act: "Where any provision of this Act confers a power on a constable (...) the officer may use reasonable force, if necessary, in the exercise of the power". In practice, that means that a police officer can use force to take the camera from you. If they would have to do that, they would probably also arrest you for Assaulting or Obstructing a Constable in the Execution of His Duty (section 51 of the Police Act 1964), or perverting the course of justice.

Are professional photographers exempt from this?

This post discusses that police can legally seize your camera, but it would be a question of whether they would.

Obviously, if the BBC was filming something that was a crime in progress, police probably wouldn't seize their camera. Why? Because it would be unlawful: There is generally no reason to believe that the BBC would "conceal, lose, alter, or destroy" the evidence, which is one of the provisions in s19. Instead, police would be able to request a raw, unedited copy of the footage, and can reasonably expect the BBC to comply with the request to hand over the footage.

If you are an accredited press photographer, the same might apply to you: It's possible that you might be able to copy your photos off your memory card, before submitting the memory card as evidence.

However, if the police officer in question does not trust you to submit the evidence needed to secure a prosecution without interfering with the evidence, they may very well seize your camera - or at the very least your memory card.

What should you do if they want to take your equipment?

At the very least, note down the following:

  • Their shoulder number. (If they don't have one displayed, it's probably because they are ranked inspector or higher - they will have a shoulder number, even if it is not displayed. Get it, and write it down.)
  • Their rank and name (should be displayed on their stab-vest, usually as "PC Bloggs" or "PS Thompson" or similar. Again, if it's not displayed, ask to see a warrant card, and write down the information).
  • The police station where you can get your equipment back
  • An estimate of when you can get your equipment back
  • A receipt. Get the officer to write down what they have seized (be specific, with serial numbers), along with the information listed above. Note how many photos are on the memory card; that's how many there should be when you get it back. If there aren't, file a complaint for criminal damage and/or offences under the Computer Misuse Act of 1990 (probably section 3:1a)

Personally, I would also immediately go to the nearest police station and file a complaint. Even if the seizure is lawful, a complaint will ensure that it is escalated, and the forensic examination will probably be expedited, which means you get your camera back faster.

When you file a complaint, you will get a reference number. Take good care of it; the reference number and the receipt are what will ultimately get you your camera back.

DISCLAIMER - I have had some law training, but I am not a solicitor. Whilst I believe the contents of this post are accurate, none of this should be construed as legal advice. Please consult with your own solicitor before acting on any of the above.