A group in a municipal office in Hialeah, Florida, making a request for public records was detained by police because employees felt “we had ‘invaded’ the city clerk’s office and ‘attacked’ them with our cameras, putting them ‘under threat’ and causing them to feel ‘intimidated,'” Carlos Miller from Photography Is Not a Crime wrote on his blog.
In a separate incident the next day, a man making a request for records in Miami claims he was threatened with arrest.
Miller, a photojournalist who has long advocated for the rights of filming cops in public, said he and Joel Chandler, described as a “records guru ….who has sued hundreds of government agencies for refusing to comply with the state public record law,” walked to Hialeah city hall with other men to request records.
According to Florida law, Miller noted, any citizen can walk into a government building and verbally make such a request.
“But government officials tend to force citizens to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops to obtain the records, usually insisting the requests be made in writing, allowing them to throw the request on a back burner and go back to their usual business of whatever it is they don’t want us to see, which is why they go into a panic when they see us walk in with cameras,” Miller wrote.
It was Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez who first told Miller he could not film inside the building. But Miller, well-versed in is rights of where and when he can use his camera and take snapshots (he’s detailed some of these to TheBlaze in the past) continued to film regardless of the objections from the mayor and other staff.
Video shot by Miller shows the men being told to submit a written request for the record they were seeking. Florida law though states a “person requesting a public record does not have to fill out a form to do so.” The law does include that requestors are still encouraged to put them in writing as it would help clarify the scope of the request to staff.
The group stands around for several minutes, as the city employees try to contact the city attorney to explain the policy about video recording inside government offices and the supposed policy requiring written requests for records.
Later, the group begins to leave and are met at the elevator by badge-wearing officers, one of which enters the elevator with the group escorting them down.
Once outside the building, Hialeah Police Sergeant Julian Guerra requests identification from the group so he can “take down information.” The group balks at this request, asking if they are being detained. When the officer said no, they begin to leave and the officer backtracks and says “now you’re being detained.”
The officer explains that he is conducting an investigation, stating no crime has necessarily been committed by the group.
“In the city of Hialeah, when you have people invade, as you guys did, we need to get…” the officer said making a scribbling motion with his hands, “write a report of the incident nothing more.”
Miller continues to maintain that he is under “no legal requirement to provide my identification unless I’m being detained for a crime.” Miller willingly shares his name with the officer though through his press pass.
“This is America, this is not Cuba. You guys need to stop violating people’s rights,” a member of the group said.
Watch Miller’s footage of the encounter (Note: the discussion with the cops outside the building begins at 8:15 and be warned of some strong language):
“You guys assembled as a group, show up and people are afraid,” Guerra says in the video. Miller notes the right of the people to assemble, which Guerra concedes, but “people are fearful,” he said.
“In this day and age, people are afraid,” Guerra continued.
Others who have seen Miller’s video are speaking out against the treatment of the group.
“In the video, a group of political gadflies walk into Hialeah City Hall and make a simple public records request while filming themselves, and they are harassed every step of the way, in violation of state law,” Jack Furnari for BizPacReview wrote.
“These are not partisan issues; they’re American issues,” Furnari continued. “The most outrageous part of this video happens when the gadflies leave the building and the police detain them, demanding their identification without any probable cause that a crime has been committed.”
Chandler was also thrown out of Miami City Hall last week after the Hialeah encounter, while trying to reach a city clerk or city attorney about obtaining a public record.
“I told them the reason I am here is that I am making a public records request, that I am trying to avoid suing the city,” Chandler said, according to Miller.
The cop’s response: “Just sue the city.”
Now, “the city will also have to contend with possible litigation over having detained us for attempting to exercise our Constitutionally protected right to request public records,” Miller said of Hialeah.
But his ultimate hope is that a lawsuit won’t be necessary in the future. Miller wrote that he hopes it will get to a point where can he make a verbal request for public records, while filming, without being detained. Both rights he believes the law ensures.