SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A new lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Indiana is challenging a recently enacted Indiana law that prohibits citizens from being within 25 feet of law enforcement officers.
The law, which went into effect on July 1, is called a violation of constitutional rights by the ACLU, which claims that citizens have a right to “observe and record the police.”
“The right of citizens to observe and record the police is a critical check and balance,” said Katie Blair, advocacy and public policy director at the ACLU of Indiana. “Whether it’s a traffic stop, a police response to a mental health crisis, or other police-community interactions, community members cannot hold police officers accountable if they cannot observe what is going on.”
Under the new law (House Enrolled Act 1186), citizens must provide a 25-foot buffer to allow police to perform their duties if asked to stay back by officers. If a member of the public doesn’t comply after being asked to keep back, police can arrest the citizen and charge them with a Class C misdemeanor — which is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.
While proponents of the law claim it keeps both citizens and police safe, critics claim the law gives “unbridled discretion” to police officers and allows for “viewpoint-based discrimination,” the ACLU said.
“This gives police officers unchecked authority to prohibit citizens from approaching within 25 feet of the officers to observe their actions, even if the actions of the citizens are not and will not interfere with the police,” said Ken Falk, legal director at the ACLU of Indiana.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a citizen journalist from South Bend who operates a YouTube channel called “Freedom 2 Film” where the plaintiff, Donald Nicodemus, monitors the activity of police officers by observing and filming their encounters with citizens.
According to the lawsuit, Nicodemus’s channel is meant to “expose inappropriate or problematic law enforcement behavior, shining a light on it will help to end the behavior.”
But the lawsuit claims Nicodemus is being kept from providing a proper “check and balance” of police by the new law which allows police to push him back from scenes with “unbridled discretion.”
According to the lawsuit, on July 20 Nicodemus was observing law enforcement activity in South Bend and kept being ordered by police, under threat of arrest, to move back 25 feet. Then to move back another 25 feet, as the officer “apparently interpreted” the law as allowing him to “repeatedly push back persons 25 feet at a time.”
The lawsuit claims Nicodemus “was not interfering in any way with the police investigation” yet kept being made to move back well beyond 25 feet, which nullified his ability to observe and report police officers.
The lawsuit argues that due to the law containing “no standards to constrain the officer’s ability” to enact the 25-foot buffer, police can push back citizens like Nicodemus unchecked, even if they are not interfering, and therefore strip the “accountability” that observing and recording officers provides.
“The statute violates the First Amendment and is unconstitutional,” the lawsuit states. “Appropriate declaratory and injunctive relief should be issued.