Last month a woman in Ellendale named Marge Rohrbach accused a Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) officer of seizing her phone and deleting her pictures.
Rohrbach had been watching an apparent raid by the officers on a local business. When an officer noticed her taking photos, he demanded her phone and then deleted the pictures before telling her to leave the area.
“He ordered me to give him the phone – what was I going to do?” said Marge Rohrbach of Ellendale, pointing out that the agents conducting what she understood to be a search warrant had bullet-proof vests and guns.
The agent confronted her after she drove away from the shop being searched and back to the Flying H bar and restaurant to pick up her lunch, Rohrbach said.
Rohrbach, who works in Forbes, left work and headed over to the scene out of curiosity when word spread through the 40-person town that there were multiple law enforcement vehicles there, and a payloader from the shop being loaded onto a trailer.
She was standing on a street corner taking photos of the payloader, then took another picture out of the driver’s side window of her car as she drove away to the restaurant.
She said the agent followed her there and told her if she took any photos of him, she would be in hot water.
She assured him she’d only took shots of the payloader.
He then said it was illegal to take pictures of an officer executing a search warrant, Rohrbach said.
“He said, ‘I need to see your phone – give it to me,’ ” she said.
The law enforcement officer then deleted all of the scenes of the search, then returned her phone, Rohrbach said.
If the officer did tell Rohrbach that it’s illegal to take pictures of law enforcement officers going about their duties (whether it’s executing a search warrant or something else), he’s flat-out wrong. It is illegal to obstruct officers. It is illegal to hinder officers. It is not illegal to merely photograph them.
At least, I can find no laws on the books in North Dakota making the peaceful, non-obstructive photography illegal even when the subject is police at work in a public area.
The question of whether or not citizens are allowed to record or photograph cops at work has been a hot-button issue in America for a couple of years now. Earlier this year the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a woman who was arrested for filming cops who had stopped her friend’s vehicle. “It is clearly established in this circuit that police officers cannot, consistently with the Constitution, prosecute citizens for violating wiretapping laws when they peacefully record a police officer performing his or her official duties in a public area,” the appeals court said in their opinion.
This morning I requested information about the case from Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (the BCI operates under the AG’s office). “No records can be provided at this time because it is still an ongoing investigation,” she told me.
I asked her which investigation was on-going, the matter that prompted the original raid or the matter involving the altercation between Rohrbach and the BCI officer.
“No information can be provided because it is still an ongoing investigation,” she told me.
That denial of information doesn’t seem to pass the smell test. While it may be understandable that the AG’s office doesn’t want to comment on the original investigation, an altercation between a BCI officer and a member of the public would seem to be a separate issue entirely deserving of a much more prompt response to inquiry.
I’m going to keep tabs on this case, and I’ll update when there’s information available.