A man calling himself "NC Tyrant Hunter'' has posted videos of his interactions with the police on YouTube, which has made him and others—they call themselves "First Amendment auditors"—into social media stars. In one video, Tyrant Hunter walks into a government building (this one's a county tax office), and films in the lobby, which is open to the public. As usual, the person in charge confronts him as if he's stealing their soul.
This is exactly what Tyrant Hunter, an ornery backwoods type who can get foul-mouthed if he feels disrespected, wants. Then the police arrive, as they do in all of his videos. They're usually not smart enough to ascertain that a crime's being committed before showing up and wasting their time. A female officer asks Hunter for his name, and he gives one of his usual replies: "Good Citizen." Then a male officer demands his ID, which he, as always, refuses to produce, explaining that the police must have reasonable, clearly-articulated suspicion that a crime has been committed to require a citizen's ID. The more clueless or ego-driven cops persist when this legality is explained to them, but this one just pauses until it sinks in, and then leaves. I give him credit for that.
This is how all Hunter's videos end, and he gets in some parting shots about them being tyrants if they've behaved poorly. Often the cops feel obliged to recapture some sense of authority as they slink off by giving him directives about things he can't do. Even if they do this politely, it enrages Hunter, who has 274,000 YouTube followers. He talks over their directives until they leave. He'll tell them, in his hillbilly accent, "You're not my daddy," or, "I'm a grown man." A favorite farewell of many auditors when the cops leave is, "You're dismissed." Others call out, "It's the walk of shame!"
The auditors' method is to create a provocation, without breaking any laws, that prompts a police response. Sometimes they'll film police cars in the parking lot, which enrages the cops. All of those cars can be legally filmed when they're out on the street. Hunter's preferred method involves filming a business while standing just off the road that the business is on. Many owners don't understand that this part of their property is subject to easement laws that allow for pedestrian access. Hunter uses online maps to pinpoint where he's allowed to be. When the cops arrive, he explains he's a journalist exercising his First Amendment rights. Plenty of these auditor videos show cops responding to that assertion by asking which media outlet the auditor works for, or demanding professional credentials.
The auditors have studied the law applying to where and what they're allowed to film, and they know it better than most of the cops responding to them. This is where the entertainment value lies. Watching law enforcement enter a scene with swagger, and then getting dismissed after having been schooled is satisfying. It's also an educational experience both for the cops and those who've sent the cops on a fool's errand. Often in these videos, one partner says nothing and looks like they don't want to be there, while the other one comes on strong. The silent cops are the ones who've seen the First Amendment auditor videos.
Tyrant Hunter, along with some of the other auditors, displays behavior that offends some. He'll flip people off, including cops. He called a cop a pig in one video, and called a guy who sprayed him with a garden hose a "peter puffer," which he attempted to explain to his audience wasn't homophobic. If the guy gets mad enough, he'll indirectly suggest that his many followers flood the phone lines of a business that's displeased him. But Hunter's milquetoast compared to vicious auditors like YouTube's Caveman's CamdUp. In one of his videos, he was illegally detained for filming a cop, but then instantly released when a supervisor arrived—a common occurrence in these videos. Caveman then lit into the uninformed officer with this tirade that included an extended middle finger: "Fuck you officer Horton, you piece of shit. You scumbag blue line motherfucker. You're a disrespectful pig." This language turns some against auditors, but the cop did learn something that his superiors failed to teach him.
Something I learned from watching these videos is that pulling a camera out often sends people into an irrational frenzy, even when they have no legal expectation of privacy when out in public. An auditor known as NastyNathaniel set up his camera on the sidewalk and began filming a Popeye's and an employee called the cops. Before doing that, he and another employee had gone outside to the sidewalk to tell the auditor he needed a permit to film, which isn't true. A squad car arrived, but didn't even stop. Why did it come in the first place? All that time was wasted because a guy was standing in a public area with a camera pointed at a chicken joint.
Another thing I learned from these videos is how many cops are ignorant about their legal power to demand ID, which is the first thing they ask for when they arrive at the scene of an audit. But they don't get IDs from the auditors, which upsets them. They're used to instant compliance, illegal demands for ID. When refused, their ego gets bruised, because they suddenly realize they don't have the power they thought. They persist until forced to give up, producing a record of their own incompetence. Many "trained" police officers who arrive at the scene with merely an inarticulable hunch about why they're there don't know they need to have a "reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed" to demand ID. That's the law. These conversations go something like this:
"Can I see some ID?"
"Well, we got a call about suspicious activity."
"So I have to identify myself because someone called you?"
"Yes, we always ID in these situations."
"What crime are you investigating?"
"We don't know yet."
"Is suspicious activity a misdemeanor or a felony?"
At this point, it's over for the cops. They've allowed themselves to be lured into a trap that sometimes over a million people on YouTube will see. First Amendment auditors' are self-declared "citizen journalists," so they're afforded First Amendment protection to film on public property without identifying themselves. Anyway, there's no law requiring people to carry IDs in public, unless they're driving. Some cops in these videos say they ID everyone they come into contact with, which means they're violating citizens' rights on a daily basis. The First Amendment auditors are in the process of modifying this behavior.
Smart police forces will eventually learn not to respond to calls involving First Amendment auditors unless they can come up with an actual crime to investigate. Many have already begun training their officers for these encounters, which means we'll have fewer uneducated cops. When a police department has its officers demanding ID and detaining people without being able to articulate a specific crime they're investigating, it makes their cops look like fools, and it's online for everyone to see. That's bad PR. Keeping the police humble and educated is a public service we should thank First Amendment auditors for.