Christopher Sharp (frame grab from ACLU video)
A federal court has smacked down attempts by the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) to harass and intimidate a photographer who is suing the department. The photographer is suing over civil rights violations, because police stopped him for photographing a public arrest.
Christopher Sharp won a protective order in US District Court in Maryland last month, barring the BPD from pursuing a “witch hunt” into his past. Sharp has charged the BPD with violating his constitutional rights when officers confiscated his cell phone and erased a video he’d made of police making the arrest in 2010.
In defending against Sharp’s claims, the BPD requested old drug test results, cell phone records, and employment records. The BPD also interviewed his ex-wife’s boyfriend and mother.
Police said their requests for drug test results (which were from 2007), and other information about Sharp were meant to establish Sharp’s competency and credibility as a witness.
Sharp told the court he believes the police inquiries are meant to embarrass him, and to get him to drop his claims.
The court agreed with Sharp, and issued an order against BPD’s evidence requests. “The rules of discovery do not sanction a broad sweep into the lives of parties–a veritable witch hunt–in hopes of uncovering some ‘dirt,’” the judge wrote in her order.
Of the BPD request for the drug test results in particular, the judge wrote, “Even if the hair follicle test indicated that there were drugs in the plaintiff’s system in 2007–some three years before the subject incident, the court fails to see the relevance [to the civil rights case at hand], but certainly sees that such a request could be viewed as an attempt to intimidate.”
She said the phone records and employment records were also irrelevant to the case.
With regard to police interviews of Sharp’s ex-wife’s boyfriend and mother, the judge explained in court papers that normally such interviews by police are acceptable. But because police attorneys had interrogated Sharp “to the point of harassment,” the judge expressed concern that police would “overstep the bounds of zealous defense” in other interviews. For that reason, the judge ordered the BPD and its attorneys to seek court permission before interviewing any third parties as part of their investigation of Sharp’s claims.
Sharp alleges in his lawsuit that the BPD violated his First Amendment right to record the police in public. He also alleges violation of his Fourth and Fourteenth amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure and deprivation of property without due process.
Previously, he won resounding support for his claims from the US Department of Justice, which opposed efforts by the BPD to have Sharp’s claims thrown out of court. The DOJ also provided the BPD with a written blueprint for changing its policies, explaining to the BPD that citizens have a constitutional right to record police carrying out their public duties, and that it is illegal for police to seize and delete the recordings.
A trial date for Sharp’s case has not been set.
Department of Justice Warns Police Against Violating Photographers’ Rights