A recent incident involving the arrest of a Indiana woman for filming a police officer from less than 25 feet away has sparked a debate about citizens’ rights to record law enforcement activities.
Mary Nichols was taken into custody by Lawrence police officers during an arrest on October 4, but has since been released without facing any charges.
The incident began when Nichols, 65, observed police lights across the street and decided to use her phone to document the situation.
“I’m like, well let me go take a look and film this, see what’s going on,” Nichols explained to WTHR News.
Initially, Nichols complied with the law, filming the arrest from a distance of at least 25 feet and not attempting to get closer, as confirmed by the police officer on the scene. However, when the individual arrested was being moved into an ambulance, Nichols moved closer and began filming from just one foot away from the vehicle.
At this point, the police advised her to step back at least 25 feet, which she did. However, they subsequently took her into custody, citing unlawful encroachment on an investigation, a misdemeanor charge that became effective in July.
“I think it was wrong. Their police action was over, he was in the ambulance. I was outside the ambulance, unarmed completely. All I had was my camera,” Nichols said.
In defense of their actions, Lawrence Police Department Deputy Chief Gary Woodruff explained: “It’s well within a citizen’s rights to record those events, it’s just a matter of encroaching up and creating the environment where a secondary issue could occur because somebody is so close, creating a secondary concern or a secondary issue.”
The arrest prompted discussions about House Bill 1186, which passed earlier this year. The law allows a police officer to request that a bystander move back 25 feet during an arrest, questioning or any police business. Failure to comply with this request can result in a Class C misdemeanor charge, potentially leading to a $500 fine and/or 60 days behind bars.
A similar law was passed in Arizona in 2022, prohibiting bystanders from filming within 8 feet of police activities.
Following the passage of the Indiana law, the ACLU of Indiana argued that the legislation would hinder citizens’ attempts to hold police accountable.
Supporters of the bill, on the other hand, argued that documenting a police interaction from beyond 25 feet was sufficient for accountability purposes, and would not interfere with police work.
However, on October 6, the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to file charges against Mary Nichols, citing a probable cause affidavit. According to the affidavit, the only felony Nichols was arrested for was “escape” after she slipped out of her handcuffs because they were too tight, though she claims she did not attempt to run.
“After reviewing this arrest, the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office is not filing charges for Unlawful Encroachment in this matter. The Probable Cause Affidavit submitted does not allege that Nichols interfered with a police investigation or the efforts of medics to provide care to an injured individual on scene,” a statement read.
Mary Nichols, despite her arrest, remained steadfast in her commitment to recording such events.
“I think more people should get their cameras out,” she said.
Lawrence police officials subsequently advised citizens to comply with police requests during such situations and to address any concerns or complaints later through appropriate channels.
“If I had some advice to share, I think the advice would be to comply now, complain later if you feel like you need to complain,” Woodruff said.