I'm not quite sure how to form this question, but basically I've watched a lot of shows that record crimes happening. These are usually the series about narcotics, violence, etc. The shows film crimes taking progress such as drug sales and consumption, prostitution, robberies, gang activity, etc.

How is it possible for these shows to go on the air and what legalities do they face in doing so? California has a law against this sort of thing which is why I ask. I don't know about federal or other states though.

The statute in question is California Penal Code 182.5. The code makes it a felony for anyone to participate in a criminal street gang, have knowledge that a street gang has engaged in criminal activity, or benefit from that activity.

How do they film a particular individual committing a crime, but not incriminate that individual? Do they get special permission to film these activities?

Update: I'm referring to non-fiction shows such as Drugs Inc. Not shows like CSI Miami.

  • 1
    are you talking about shows like COPS? Or are you talking about shouws like CSI Miami? Shows that are depicting crime (like CSI Miami), aren't showing crimes. Shows like COP blur the faces of the accused unless the accused sign wavers, giving rights to the production company.
    – Ben Plont
    Jan 25, 2015 at 2:36
  • I'm referring to non fiction shows such as drugs inc Jan 25, 2015 at 4:29
  • It is not legal ... in fact the activities they film are so illegal that they blur the faces of the participants and they film them knowing that they could be arrested at any time. I would also like to add that there are many laws protecting the freedom of press, speech and expression and they would certainly clash in a court of law. Journalist have been forced to disclose a source in the past but have never done so willingly. Additionally, we don't actually know which parts of the show have props and actors and which have real drugs.
    – Dannie
    Jan 25, 2015 at 7:57
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    A non fiction show doesn't "depict" crimes, it records them. Most laws allow journalists to report on activities that are illegal and do not charge them with participating in the activity or force them to reveal the identities of the people they interviewed. Sometimes it's up to a court to make that decision. Jan 25, 2015 at 13:49

1 Answer 1


This is a legal gray area, and can vary from country to country, from state to state.

Most states recognize that, if the activity is being recorded objectively and without interference/propagation from the 'director', the film-maker is protected under the first amendment: specifically relating to the freedom of the press.

As long as the piece is a documentary (this is the 'grey area' bit, as it lays in proving this classification for the film) then the film maker is operating in a journalistic capacity... and thus can not be prosecuted or censored.

If, however, witnesses or the authorities involved can prove in any way that the film maker coerced or influenced the 'criminal' to participate in their illegal activities, they can be charged as an accessory to the crime.

In some instances, however, authorities can indeed intervene; although this is typically in the form of a subpoena to surrender the footage rather than a criminal charge.

One extreme example of this is the case of WDAF-TV v McCASKILL (1996), wherein the defendants (WDAF-TV) had footage of a murder, and upon having the footage seized countersued: claiming a breach of privacy.

Both sides were considered to be 'correct' in their appraisal, and it resulted in the Privacy Act being ammended to reflect what a grey area this sort of thing is.

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