ACLU Sues Police for Seizing Man’s Phone After Recording Alleged Misconduct

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The ACLU has sued the District of Columbia and two police officers for allegedly seizing the cellphone of a man who photographed a police officer allegedly mistreating a citizen, and for then stealing his memory card.

The suit, filed in federal court (.pdf) in Washington, D.C., alleges that the police officer violated Earl Staley, Jr.’s First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights by improperly searching and seizing his property while he was exercising his right to photograph the police performing their duty.

The incident occurred July 20 when Staley, on his way to a bus stop with a friend, pulled out his phone to record police after he saw an officer hit a man on a motorbike. Two police officers then allegedly punched the man on the ground as he bled.

Staley pulled out his phone to take photos when police also allegedly began “chest bumping” bystanders who would not leave the scene.

Officer James O’Bannon seized Staley’s smartphone from his hand when he saw Staley take a photo of another officer and told Staley that he had broken the law in photographing the officer, according to the complaint. O’Bannon told Staley he was seizing the phone as evidence and threatened to arrest Staley if he didn’t leave the scene.

When Staley was later given back his phone by police, his memory card was missing. The police have still not returned the card, which Staley says contained several years’ worth of personal data, including family photos, passwords, financial account data and music files.

“That memory card had a lot of my life on it,” Staley said in a statement. “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 incident occurred a day after the D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department issued a General Order informing officers that the public has a First Amendment right to photograph or record police officers performing their duties in public. That’s also the legal opinion of the U.S. Justice Department.

Per the D.C. order, police cannot “[i]n any way threaten, intimidate or otherwise discourage an individual from recording members’ enforcement activities,” and prohibits officers from seizing cameras unless an “official with supervisory authority” is present at the scene.

“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,” said Arthur B. Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU’s D.C. chapter, said in a statement. “The officer’s actions here will have consequences.”