Lawsuit accuses DC officers of taking man's cell phone
By John Henrehan, FOX 5 Reporter
Earl Staley II
Two D.C. police officers are accused in a federal lawsuit of trying to intimidate a man from taking photos of a police action, then illegally taking the man's phone.
On July 20, Earl Staley II was walking near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Avenue and Raleigh Street in Southeast Washington when he says he observed D.C. Police officers beating the driver of a motorbike.
"Different police officers [were] down [on the ground]," said Staley. "They looked like they were punching him. So, I went over and got my camera ready (to go look at what was going on) because I know they're wrong."
At that point, according to Staley, a vice officer "chest bumped" him and other spectators, and a second vice officer "reaches over my back and grabs my phone. And he takes my phone from me, and tells me I'm not getting it back because it's illegal for me to take pictures of them while they're on the scene."
This incident in Southeast D.C. happened one day after D.C.'s Chief of Police issued a general order reminding police officers that under the First Amendment of the Constitution, the citizens do have the right to photograph police activity that happens in public. And according to the order, only a Watch Commander (or other supervisor) who is at the scene can authorize the seizure of a camera for evidence purposes.
The American Civil Liberties Union has helped Staley file a lawsuit against the officers and the city.
"People have a right to photograph the police," explained Arthur Spitzer, the legal director of the ACLU of the Nation's Capital. "You can't tell them not to. You can't block their view. You ... certainly can't take their camera."
Staley says when he went to the Seventh District police station, he got his camera/phone returned, but later discovered the memory card in it was gone.
"Three years of pictures of my daughter," said the 26-year-old-man shaking his head. "Three years worth of pictures gone down the hole."
The Chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police thinks the lawsuit is a tempest in a teapot.
"We have hundreds of thousands of interactions with residents and tourists and citizens every year," Kris Baumann told us. "And the ACLU has been able to produce [only] two occasions in the last five years where we supposedly interfered with or took a camera from someone."
The FOP's Baumann told us he also doubts some of the specific allegations in the lawsuit.
One of the two policeman named in the lawsuit sent an email saying he has not had a chance to read the complaint. The city's Metropolitan Police Department referred questions to the Office of Attorney General, which defends the city in lawsuits. (The District of Columbia is a named party in the complaint.)
A spokesman for the city's Attorney General says that office is reviewing the lawsuit, but has no comment at this time.
The lawsuit is seeking unspecified monetary damages.