Civil rights groups think a bill that would create a buffer zone around law enforcement officers is really about preventing citizens from filming the police. Credit: Charles Maldonado/Verite

A controversial bill that would require people to stay at least 25 feet away from law enforcement officers while engaged in their official duties sailed through a House committee last week in the Louisiana Legislature and is now scheduled to go before the full House of Representatives, despite strenuous objections from civil rights groups. 

Its backers in the Republican-dominated legislature call it a common-sense proposal that creates a “zone of protection” around police who often find themselves in dangerous situations. But civil rights advocates fear that the bill — House Bill 85, which is backed by at least one major law enforcement group — is a Trojan Horse meant to disguise its real purpose: preventing citizens from filming incidents of excessive force. 

The bill, which is similar to a recently passed Indiana state law, states that “no person shall knowingly or intentionally approach within 25 feet of a law enforcement officer who is lawfully engaged in the execution of his official duties after the officer has ordered the person to stop approaching.”

Violating the zone of protection would be a misdemeanor, and violators could be fined $500, be sentenced to 60 days in jail or both. 

The bill passed the state House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice on May 2 by an 8-1 vote and is scheduled for debate on the House floor on Thursday (May 11). If it passes the chamber, it will then move to the state Senate for debate. 

In a statement opposing the bill, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said it is being put forward at the same time the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Louisiana State Police for an alleged pattern of excessive force and racially discriminatory policing,” and just three years after a bystander exposed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by filming from nearby. 

NACDL Executive Director Lisa Monet Wayne called the bill “dangerous” and “vaguely worded,” warning it would violate people’s First Amendment rights and criminalize “videotaping evidence of police abuse.”

Sponsor denies that bill targets filming

Federal appellate courts across the country, including the U.S. District Court for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, have repeatedly affirmed the right of citizens to film law enforcement in public places. And last year, an Arizona law that made it a crime to film police activity from within a radius of eight feet led to a federal lawsuit by a group of news organizations and media trade groups represented by the state chapter of the ACLU. A federal judge in September issued an order that blocks enforcement of the law while the case is ongoing.

Unlike the Arizona bill, the Louisiana bill does not explicitly mention filming, as its sponsor noted last week. 

State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, who authored the bill, defended it at the committee hearing, saying it does not prohibit people from filming police activity. He claimed that, from 25 feet away, he was able to zoom in on the hand of someone speaking before the Legislature close enough that he could count the number of stones in her ring.

“Any suggestion that this in any way shape or form denies somebody the opportunity to film is just not accurate,” Johnson said. “It just sets a bodily separation between the officer trying to do his job and anyone, friend or foe, walking up to them.”

If passed, the bill may conflict with a 10-year-old federal consent decree over the New Orleans Police Department. That court-enforced agreement mandates that officers allow people to film police activity and prohibits them from detaining anyone merely for being in their proximity, unless the presence of bystanders is causing a safety hazard. 

The Lens previously reported that Johnson put forward the bill on behalf of the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police, the state chapter of the national police officers association. Neither Johnson nor the FOP responded to requests for comment.

Meg Garvey, president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it is the vagueness of the bill that presents the real threat. She questioned how anyone is supposed to know how closely they can approach law enforcement officers unless they carry a measuring tape.

“It’s not common knowledge,” Garvey said. “This is putting a burden on the average citizen to risk arrest and two months in prison because they haven’t measured out 25 feet.”

Critics said it is also unclear what the bill means when it refers to an officer “lawfully engaged in the execution of his official duties.” Will this tool be available to any officer at any time who is in uniform and on the clock? Can an officer having a bad day tell someone who approaches them for directions they need to stay 25 feet away under threat of arrest?

Johnson dismissed these concerns as “absurd.” Even if someone is arrested for being 30 feet away, instead of 25 feet, they still have a chance to prove their innocence in a court of law, he said.

“These extremes that have been suggested I don’t think are realistic,” he said.

Stephanie Willis, policy strategist for the ACLU of Louisiana, said the vagueness of the bill’s language could prove to be its undoing. The Constitution’s due process clause requires that laws be clear in what is punishable and what is not to prevent “arbitrary enforcement.”

Rep. Joseph Marino, I-Gretna, was the lone committee member to vote against the bill last week. He questioned why it was necessary when there is already a law that makes it illegal to intentionally interfere with a law enforcement officer “conducting investigative work at the scene of a crime or the scene of an accident.” The penalty for that is $500 or up to six months in prison.

Update: On Thursday, May 11, House Bill 85 passed the state House by a vote of 67-32 and was ordered to the state Senate for debate.

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...