June 17th, 2014 by Wills Citty and tagged Access, Arrest, civil rights, first amendment, Fourth Amendment, free speech, law enforcement, Mickey Osterreicher, national press photographers association, NPPA, NYCLU, Phillip Datz, photographers, photography, Photography Is Not A Crime, photojournalism, photojournalist, police, police relations, public street, SCPD, settlement, Suffolk County Police Department
NPPA member Philip Datz today won a major settlement from the Suffolk County Police Department in a civil rights suit stemming from Datz’s arrest while filming law enforcement activity on a public street. Under the terms of the settlement, Suffolk County agreed to pay Datz $200,000, implement a new training program (including a training video), and create a Police-Media Relations Committee.
The NPPA, attorneys from the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine (DWT) and the NYCLU worked with Datz, a freelance videographer, to file a federal lawsuit after Suffolk County prosecutors dropped charges resulting from his 2011 arrest. In July of 2011 Datz was filming police activity from a public sidewalk when Suffolk County Police Sergeant Michael Milton confronted him (VIDEO), demanding he leave the area immediately. Datz was wearing his press credentials at the time and was standing near several other onlookers, who were not asked to leave. Although no police lines had been established, Datz complied and then drove a block away. He was filming from there when Sergeant Milton came speeding up in his police cruiser, placed Datz under arrest for obstruction of governmental administration, and seized his camera and videotape.
Led by attorney Robert Balin, DWT filed suit on Datz’s behalf in 2012, claiming the unlawful arrest violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights as well as the Privacy Protection Act of 1980. Rather than take the case to trial, SCPD agreed to the settlement payment, and a series of relief measures aimed at educating its officers on the rights of the public and press to observe and record police activity. As part of these measures, SCPD officers will now be annually required to watch a training video explaining these rights. In addition, a newly created Police-Media Relations Committee consisting of representatives of SCPD and local media will be charged with promoting better relations between press and the police and will address complaints regarding police-media relations. Its membership will include a commanding officer in the SCPD, the executive officer of the SCPD’s Public Information Bureau, and members of local print and broadcast media outlets, as well as a freelance videographer or photographer. The SCPD also revised its rules to instruct officers that “members of the media cannot be restricted from entering and/or producing recorded media from areas that are open to the public, regardless of subject matter.”
“This settlement is a victory for the First Amendment and for the public good,” Datz said. “When police arrest journalists just for doing their job, it creates a chilling effect that jeopardizes everyone’s ability to stay informed about important news in their community. Journalists have a duty to cover what the police are doing, and the police should follow the law and respect the First Amendment to ensure they can do that.” Datz has also made a generous donation to the NPPA defense fund.
“We are delighted that Suffolk County has now joined other police departments, the U.S. Department of Justice and numerous courts across the country in recognizing that the public and press have a First Amendment right to photograph and record police officers performing their duties in a public place – a right that is essential to newsgathering and the free discussion of government affairs,” said Robert Balin. “This settlement is a huge victory not just for Phil Datz, but for all journalists and Suffolk County residents. The changes in policy and training agreed to by the County are major steps toward transforming the SCPD culture that led to this unfortunate incident. “The settlement is an encouraging sign in a climate where interference with and unlawful arrest of photographers has become commonplace.
“The National Press Photographers Association commends Suffolk County for working with Phil Datz and his counsel in order to turn a far too commonplace First Amendment violation into a constructive resolution of the case,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the NPPA. “The real challenge now will be to ensure the ongoing training of SCPD officers in order for Suffolk County to be a positive role model for other law enforcement agencies. The NPPA is also extremely appreciative of the tenacious advocacy by Rob Balin, Alison Schary and Sam Bayard of the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine who worked tirelessly on Phil’s behalf. And finally our thanks go to Phil Datz for not only having to endure the abridgment of his civil rights but for his willingness to stand up for his rights and the rights of others.”
The Suffolk County case is just the latest example of a lawsuit forcing local law enforcement to protect, rather than violate, the First Amendment. In March the Baltimore Police Department settled a case brought by the ACLU for a similar amount and also announced a new policy that prohibits officers from stopping people from taping or photographing police actions after officers destroyed a man’s personal, family videos because he taped a police incident, a case in which the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest affirming the right of both the public and the press to record police activities in public.