New Developments in the Ongoing Assault on the Right to Photograph/Record in Public

January 12th, 2012 by Mickey Osterreicher

January 10, 2012 might not be a day that any real headlines were made but in the ongoing assault on the right to photograph/record in public, events took place in two separate cases that may mark the start of a change in how this issue is viewed by the courts and police. First, in the United States District Court for The District Of Maryland, the Department of Justice filed an 18 page ““Statement of Interest of The United States” ” Sharp v. Baltimore City Police, et al.

According to the complaint, filed by the ACLU of Maryland in August 2011, “this is a civil rights action challenging as unconstitutional the Baltimore City Police Department’s warrantless arrest and detention of plaintiff Christopher Sharp, as well as the seizure and destruction of Mr. Sharp’s property, premised upon Mr. Sharp’s exercise of his rights under the federal and Maryland constitutions to document the conduct of City police officers performing their public duties in a public place.”

That complaint which was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City Maryland and later removed to federal court stems from an incident in which Christopher Sharp videotaped police using excessive force to effectuate the arrest of a female friend while they were in the Pimlico Race Course Clubhouse at the 2010 Preakness Stakes. Video taken of the beating by another observer can be found on YouTube:

Sharp refused police requests to surrender his video as “evidence”, whereupon it is alleged that police “seized his cell phone, and detained him while one officer left the area with the phone. After the officers returned the phone, Mr. Sharp discovered that the officers had deleted video of the arrest and all other videos that had been stored on the device, including numerous videos of his young son and other personal events.”

“This litigation presents constitutional questions of great moment in this digital age: whether private citizens have a First Amendment right to record police officers in the public discharge of their duties, and whether officers violate citizens’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they seize and destroy such recordings without a warrant or due process. The United States urges this Court to answer both of those questions in the affirmative” the DOJ statement read in what is believed to be the first time it has weighed in on the issue of recording police. “The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place, as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution. They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our governmental officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.”

In the second case, Glik v Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78 (1st Cir. 2011) (denying qualified immunity to officer on arrestee’s First and Fourth Amendment claims), the Boston Police Department concluded an almost four (4) year internal investigation. In a letter to Mr. Glik, cell phone cinematographer Simon Glik, superintendent Kenneth Fong of the Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Professional Standards said that officers had shown “unreasonable judgment” by taking him into custody.

By way of background – while walking through Boston Commons in October 2007, Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, Simon Glik, observed three Boston police officers attempting to arrest a suspect. After hearing another bystander say “you are hurting him, stop” and being concerned that the police were using excessive force Glik began to record the incident on his cell phone camera from about ten feet away. Once the suspect was in handcuffs one of the officers told Glik “I think you have taken enough pictures.” When Glik continued to record another officer asked Glik if he was recording audio. When Glik said yes he was handcuffed and arrested by police. The charges were unlawful audio recording in violation of  Massachusetts’ wiretap law, disturbing the peace and aiding in the escape of a prisoner. After his arrest Glik filed a complaint with internal affairs regarding the incident. The Boston Police “did not investigate his complaint or initiate disciplinary action against the arresting officers.”

In February 2010, Glik, represented by the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, filed a civil right complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts against the three arresting officers as well as the City of Boston under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The complaint also alleges state-law claims under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12, § 11I, as well as malicious prosecution.

The defendants moved to dismiss under FRCP 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted and because the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. At a motion hearing the district court denied the defendant’s motion, stating that “in the First Circuit . . . this First Amendment right to publicly record the activities of police officers on public business is established.”

In its decision the First Circuit reasoned that, given the facts in Glik, since “the qualified immunity doctrine ‘balances two important interests — the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably;’ ‘a reasonable defendant would have understood that his conduct violated the plaintiff[’s] constitutional rights.’”

The City of Boston appealed this ruling on behalf of its officers (See:  City’s Brief and  ACLU Brief; as well as two amicus briefs: Center for Constitutional Rights and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press).

Apparently following up on Glik’s initial 2007 complaint to police  “a department spokeswoman told the Boston Globe that the officers, John Cunniffee and Peter Savalis, now ‘face discipline ranging from an oral reprimand to suspension.’” Glik told the Globe, “As far as I knew, my complaint was summarily dismissed. . . . I was basically laughed out of the building,’’ Glik said. “From what I understand, it takes filing a federal lawsuit in order for internal affairs to review a complaint.’’

That lawsuit and the one in Sharp now move forward with new momentum. It will also be interesting to see what impact this has on the awaited decision in ACLU v Alvarez before the Seventh Circuit. Stay tuned!

Posted in Access, Baltimore Police, Boston Police, cell phone cameras, Christopher Sharp, confiscated, Department of Justice, DOJ, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, Fourth Amendment, Fourth Amendment rights, law, Legal, Maryland ACLU, Massachusetts ACLU, National Press Photographers Association, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, Police, Public Photography, Recording Police, Search and Seizure, Simon Glik | 59 Comments »

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