D.C. Police are investigating a man's claim that his First Amendment rights were violated by an officer last week when the plain-clothes officer allegedly snatched his cell phone at a crime scene.
Earl Staley says he considers what happened to him Friday, July 20, a robbery.
"I know that I could take these pictures of these guys," Staley tells Fox 5 News. "I know it. Especially when they're doing something wrong."
Staley says his smartphone was snatched by a D.C. Police officer last Friday evening along Raleigh Place in Southeast D.C. Staley says he saw police punching a man they were arresting and another plain-clothes officer harassing the people watching.
"So I go and grab my phone and start trying to record it," says Staley, a 26-year-old employee of a private, non-profit mental health agency in the District. "And once I do that, another vice cop reaches over my back and grabs my phone and tells me he's not giving my phone back."
"That was the wrong thing for the officer to do," says the ACLU's Art Spitzer.
He says that officer may not have known about a new General Order issued by D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier that went into effect last Thursday.
"And the order is completely clear that in terms of preventing a person from taking pictures. The police are never to do that," Spitzer continues.
The order comes as the result of a lawsuit Spitzer filed on behalf of Jerome Vorus. He was detained by a D.C. Police officer while taking pictures of a traffic stop along Pennsylvania Avenue in Georgetown.
"I knew that I was in the full scope of the law," Vorus told FOX 5 News Monday.
"This is why we filed this lawsuit and this is why we needed this order," Spitzer says. "Because here in D.C. and around the country, we've seen so many instances of police being camera shy, and worse, because they don't want people to see what they're doing. And when they're in public performing our business, we have a right to know what they're doing."
Staley says when he eventually got his phone back later that night, the memory card was missing - including hundreds of pictures of his four-year-old daughter.
"I know it has to be illegal," Staley says. "It hurt me a lot because that's a lot of pictures."
In a statement to FOX 5, D.C. Police officials said they are aware of the allegation and are looking into it.