The American Civil Liberties Union has just filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia and two police officers after alleging that they violated the law by seizing a man’s cellphone and stealing his memory card. The plaintiff in the case, Earl Staley, was reportedly using his cellphone to record the activity of the officers, who were mistreating members of the public, according to the lawsuit.
According to the court documents, Staley claims that on July 20th, he saw a Metropolitan Police Department cruiser hit a man on a motorbike. As the man lay on the ground, the officers reportedly starting punching the injured biker. Soon after, our two defendants, officer James O’Bannon and officer Kenneth Dean, arrived in plain clothes, announced that they were indeed MPD, and began “aggressively demanding the bystanders leave the scene, including making physical contact.”
Thinking this was improper, Staley took out his phone and snapped a picture of Dean. Shortly after, O’Bannon approached Staley and grabbed the phone out of his hands.
Staley was told that he was breaking the law by taking the photograph and threatened arrest if he didn’t “chill out.” Staley was told that he could pick up his phone at the station later in the day.
But when he did, he found that his memory card was missing. Staley claims that the card stored irreplaceable information, such as pictures of his daughter and other family from 2008 onward.
“That memory card had a lot of my life on it,” said Mr. Staley. “I can never replace those photos of my daughter’s first years. The police had no right to steal it. They’re supposed to enforce the law, not break it.”
The ACLU has stepped in, and here’s what they have to say:
Mr. Staley’s activities on July 20, 2012, did not interfere in any way with police operations. No reasonable police officer in the position of defendant O’Bannon could have believed that he had a lawful basis to seize Mr. Staley’s phone or to threaten to arrest him.
The ACLU is suing on grounds that the officers violated Staley’s First Amendment and Fourth Amendement rights, dealing with freedom of expression and illegal search and seizure.
First, on the First Amendement front:
Defendants’ actions, described above, violated Mr. Staley’s right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by preventing him from taking additional photographs of police activity, by intimidating him from asserting his right to recover his camera and criticize the police, and by destroying the photograph he had taken of Officer 2, as well as many other valuable photographs and expressive material,
And in terms of the Fourth Amendment:
Mr. Staley’s conduct on July 20, 2012, did not provide probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that he had committed, was committing, or was about to commit any crime, and did not provide defendant O’Bannon with any lawful basis on which to seize Mr. Staley’s phone or to search, destroy or dispose of Mr. Staley’s memory card. Defendant O’Bannon’s actions in seizing Mr. Staley’s phone and searching, destroying or disposing of Mr. Staley’s memory card violated Mr. Staley’s right under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
The ACLU is seeking the return of Staley’s memory card, compensatory damages, and an order to D.C. Police to train all officers in the First and Fourth Amendment implications of photographing police procedures.
Strangely enough, the events in question took place just one day after the MPD issued a general order concerning the rights of the public to record police business.
“The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) recognizes that members of the general public have a First Amendment right to video record, photograph, and/or audio record MPD members while MPD members are conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space, unless such recordings interfere with police activity,” it states.
It also says that officers “shall not…[i]n any way threaten, intimidate or otherwise discourage an individual from recording members’ enforcement activities” and calls for supervisors to be present before any device is seized.
“When a police officer sees a camera he should smile,” said Arthur B. Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital and the attorney representing Mr. Staley. “Officers must learn that people have a right to photograph them in public places, and that trying to cover up police misconduct is worse than the initial misconduct. The officer’s actions here will have consequences.”
It’s not surprising that some police would have the desire to crack down on citizens photographing or videotaping their activities. The rise of YouTube and social media has meant that actions that were once secret are seen by millions of people within a matter of minutes. American law enforcement has bad apples, there’s no getting around that.
Of course, it’s unfair and just plain wrong to suggest that a majority of police officers around the country are participating in illegal seizures and intimidation surrounding cellphone recording. But orders like the one issued by the D.C. MPD are there to protect citizen’s rights. The ACLU has made cases of illegal search and seizure one of their most important issues, and as more and more citizens gain access to tools like smartphones and wireless internet, it should be shocking if more lawsuits like this one appear on dockets around the country.
[Image Courtesy vpickering, Flickr]