Baltimore To Pay $250K for Videos Deleted by Police: A Vindication of Photographers’ Rights
The City of Baltimore and its police department have agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a claim of unlawful seizure and destruction of cell phone videos that belonged to a citizen who allegedly recorded police arresting and beating another person.
Police have admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed as part of the settlement to issue a written apology to Christopher Sharp, the plaintiff in the case.
In addition, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has agreed to adopt a comprehensive and detailed written policy intended to protect the rights of citizens to photograph and record police activity from anywhere those citizens have a legal right to be, without interference or intimidation from police.
The BPD will implement the policy with a training program to ensure compliance by all police officers.
“The [Baltimore Police] Department recognizes that Mr. Sharp, in bringing this lawsuit, has focused on the need for systemic reforms that the parties all believe will improve policing in Baltimore,” the parties said in a joint statement about the settlement.
Sharp reached a tentative settlement agreement with the city and police earlier this year, but it wasn’t finalized by the court until last week. The case was adjudicated in federal court in Maryland.
Under the settlement agreement, the city will pay Sharp $25,000, while the American Civil Liberties Union–which filed the lawsuit on Sharp’s behalf and assumed the costs of the litigation–will receive $225,000, according to court papers.
The ACLU said in the joint statement that it is “grateful to Mr. Sharp for his courage in taking a stand for the fundamental, democratic right of citizens to use technology to hold government officials accountable for their actions in the public sphere.”
Sharp filed the lawsuit in 2011, alleging that he was stopped by Baltimore Police on May 15, 2010 for using his cell phone to videotape and record the arrest and beating of a female acquaintance at the Preakness horse race. According to Sharp, police seized his cell phone, and erased the videos of the arrest and all other videos, including “numerous videos of his son and other personal events,” according to court papers.
Sharp was seeking damages and a declaratory judgment for violations of his constitutional rights.
The Baltimore Police Department disputed Sharp’s allegations. In a carefully worded letter to Sharp, the department said it “regret[s] and apologize[s] for the unfortunate events that you reported took place.” The letter continues, “We would like to apologize for any inconvenience, loss or damages you believe you suffered as a result.”
The police department, which was rebuked by the US Department of Justice in 2012, also agreed to recognize that “members of the general public have:
A First Amendment right to video record, photograph, and/or audio record BPD members while BPD members are conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space, unless such recording interfere with police activity;
A Fourth Amdendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of both person and property; and
A Fourteenth Amendment right to due process in advance of property deprivation.”
Police have also agreed to a series of regulations, including the principle that photographing and recording are lawful activities, and that taking photographs or recording “from a place where a person has a right to be does not constitute suspicious activity.”
Locations where citizens are free to record police include parks, sidewalks, streets, “and locations of public protest.” as well as any other location–public or private–where a person has a legal right to be present, according to the regulations.
The regulations further state that citizens have the right to record their own interactions with police, without the need to obtain consent from the police officer(s) they are photographing or recording.
Police are also expressly prohibited from ordering citizens to stop recording, demand identification, demand explanations from the person recording or photographing, detain the person, intentionally block or obstruct cameras or recording devices, demand to review or erase images, or “in any way threaten, intimidate or otherwise discourage” a citizen from recording police activities.
The agreement includes a detailed blueprint for a training program the police department must implement within 60 days to ensure all officers understand the new policy and regulations. It includes provisions for tracking complaints from citizens about violations of the policy.
While the regulations are primarily a check on police interference, they also specify that citizens may not cross police lines, enter areas designated as crime scenes, or enter areas closed to the public in order to photograph or record police activity.
The regulation say citizens can’t interfere with police activities, but police can only direct citizens to a position that will not interfere. Offices “shall not order the person to stop photographing or recording,” according to the regulations.
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