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Filming people doing illegal things/admitting to breaking the law


Cory Kaseman
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I'm in the planning/research stage of a documentary which would ideally include some interviews with and footage of people who are breaking certain laws.  These crimes range from simple misdemeanors to federal felonies.  Does anyone have any experience filming this sort of thing?  I've seen plenty of "hidden identity" interviews and such where the subject remains anonymous, but if they're on camera admitting to breaking laws or actually being filmed breaking laws, do I have to worry about becoming an accessory to their crimes?  What can I do to make sure their identities are legally protected once the film is published?  I don't want to promise them that they'll remain anonymous, only to the have the police come to me with a warrant for their personal info once the film comes out.  Obviously journalists and even police have their confidential sources which are legally protected.  How can I do the same?

For the record, no one is going to be raped or murdered on camera.  The crime in question is essentially victimless (no, it's not about drugs).

Anyone with experience in this sort of thing or who knows of any online resources, I'd love to hear from you.

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Get a lawyer -- sooner, not later. And get some solid advice. If somebody breaks the law, and you set up the scene (and/or encouraged them), you're aiding and abetting. If they're talking about something after the fact, that's a different matter.

Note: I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but "I know tings." And I have worked on reality shows in post where scenes had to be dropped out because of last-minute legal problems (both with the police and with libel/slander issues).

--Marc W.

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Well shooting homeless people isn't exactly victimless, but I understand your point.

The subject I'm making this film about really is a victimless crime, except in an incredibly rare and pretty specific set of circumstances.  People talk about drug use being a victimless crime, but then there's always drug mules and plantation slaves and all kinds of other stuff going on behind the scenes, far away from the end user which actually do create victims.  That's really not the case with this, and it truly is a victimless crime, which is part of why I want to make a film about it.

Anyway, thank you all for the starter advice.  I'm literally in the very first stages of planning this and trying to hold off on "official" legal advice as long as I can, since I can't afford to pay a lawyer just yet.  Just putting together research material basically.

The thing of it is, I've definitely seen documentaries about, say, drug dealers and drug users, where people are very clearly selling and buying and using illegal drugs on camera.  Same thing with prostitution and pimping, where people are explicitly admitting to selling sex and freely doing so on camera.  I guess theoretically these things could be re-enactments, but somehow I think a film maker would have a hard time convincing a hardcore, violent, gangbanging drug dealer to fake a deal or a hopeless heroin addict to simply pretend to shoot up in a dank, dirty alleyway, just for the sake of the film.

I suppose I can hold off any any filming of the actual crime in progress, or fake it.  But I'm still a little wary of filming people admitting to breaking laws, and their own legal safety and anonymity after the fact.

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Every skateboard video that is not shot in a skate park is essentially filming a crime and can be used in the court of law as evidence.

But if you watched THX1138 (: , if the prosecution does not justify the level of the crime you have nothing to worry about.

I helped a short docu about homeless people in Las Vegas where we gave them food on camera and had no trouble with the law.

Feeding the homeless in LAS VEGAS is illigal. Being homeless is illigal kinda. I was stopped walking to my car downtown and the cop accused me of JAYWALKING.  Since when You can not wear a beard in USA.

But YES. GET A LAWYER. Or have one that owes you a favor.

Well shooting homeless people isn't exactly victimless, but I understand your point.

The subject I'm making this film about really is a victimless crime, except in an incredibly rare and pretty specific set of circumstances.  People talk about drug use being a victimless crime, but then there's always drug mules and plantation slaves and all kinds of other stuff going on behind the scenes, far away from the end user which actually do create victims.  That's really not the case with this, and it truly is a victimless crime, which is part of why I want to make a film about it.

Anyway, thank you all for the starter advice.  I'm literally in the very first stages of planning this and trying to hold off on "official" legal advice as long as I can, since I can't afford to pay a lawyer just yet.  Just putting together research material basically.

The thing of it is, I've definitely seen documentaries about, say, drug dealers and drug users, where people are very clearly selling and buying and using illegal drugs on camera.  Same thing with prostitution and pimping, where people are explicitly admitting to selling sex and freely doing so on camera.  I guess theoretically these things could be re-enactments, but somehow I think a film maker would have a hard time convincing a hardcore, violent, gangbanging drug dealer to fake a deal or a hopeless heroin addict to simply pretend to shoot up in a dank, dirty alleyway, just for the sake of the film.

I suppose I can hold off any any filming of the actual crime in progress, or fake it.  But I'm still a little wary of filming people admitting to breaking laws, and their own legal safety and anonymity after the fact.

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primarily i shoot action sports stuff, bmx to be exact. so probably 90% of my footage is of illegal activities in one way or another. i've never personally had tapes, camera or footage confiscated but i've heard of people that have. and its turned into quite the fiasco. i've been charged with trespassing and banned from numerous universities in my area from months(UNCG) to life(Wake Forest). But I've had friends and colleagues that have had to pay fines, community service, repaint rails and ledges, etc.. But does any of this cross my mind when putting out a video? Nope. But thats just the nature of that industry. Its kind of low key and under the radar. But its definitely getting more popular with Fuel TV and X games.

So it probably depends on where your end product is going to go. Is it going to be super main stream or just an indie type of thing? And is there a budget to really pay for legal consultation?

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If you think you might be doing something illegal, then you probably are.  Whether you get caught or are prosecuted is a totally different issue.  This might be one of those cases where it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, but it's a risk you'll have to be willing to take.  It would be a shame, however, to invest your time and money in something you will never be able to sell if it is deemed to be obtain through illegal practices.  Paying for the advice of a lawyer who specializes in this sort of thing would be something I would consider an essential part of your initial investment in the project, but that's just me.

Robert

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Don't get me wrong; I definitely plan to talk to a lawyer at some point.  I just want to learn as much as I can on my own and from people with similar experiences before I pay hundreds of dollars to consult a professional.  If I can do a bulk of the research myself and just have a pro verify my own findings, I'd probably save a far bit of cash that I can put toward gear for this shoot.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I understand you protecting your idea, but that's also part of the reason we are shooting in the dark with suggestions....

If you are out with these people doing these sketchy things and the cops see them, would the cops know they are committing crimes? Would the cops possibly think your gear recorded the occurrence of a crime? You definitely don't want your recordings, and gear, confiscated till they figure out what is going on.

You are making a documentary, as opposed to a TV show/pilot. When it is all done you would have a lawyer go over it anyway (or somebody with expertise in these fields). That's standard operating procedure just as a final look at things like logo clearance, music, releases of people etc.

The lawyer also protects you in case law enforcement says "we think this crime was committed in our jurisdiction and we want all the raw recordings and list of names of everyone involved". That's where the "I need to call my lawyer" line comes into play. Hopefully they are not saying this after kicking in your front door with a search warrant.

At the very least you should be able to find a friendly entertainment lawyer to have a chat with before you get started. They are not all uptight clock counters, and understand the artistic world. Giving you a bit of advice in the beginning to build a relationship could lead to you always taking your business to their firm. Talk to some other documentary filmmakers and ask who they used, and if they were happy with the results.

I did a docu-reality TV show and we all had our lawyer's phone number in our cell phones (very small crew). He was the same lawyer that handled Borat, so I figured there was nothing we could do that would shock him. Fortunately, our questions from the field were always more of a "can we legally stand in this spot and film" nature, or "when is an abandoned property really abandoned".... but there was a peace of mind knowing his number was in my phone and working for the production company.

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