April 3rd, 2013

Photog Abused Drugs and Has Bitter ex-Mother In Law? So What. Photography Still Isn’t a Crime

Christopher Sharp (frame grab from ACLU video)

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.

Related:
Department of Justice Warns Police Against Violating Photographers’ Rights

July 25th, 2012

DC Police Department Issues Order Affirming Photographers’ Rights

To settle a right-to-photograph lawsuit filed by an aspiring photojournalist and the ACLU, the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department has issued a general order stating that “a bystander has the right under the First Amendment to observe and record [DC police officers] in the public discharge of their duties.”

The order instructs police not to interfere with anyone photographing police activity as long as the photographer is standing in a public setting or private facility where they have the right to be, and as long as they are not interfering with police activity.

The order also reminds police that still and video photography “of places, buildings, structures and events are common and lawful activities.” And it spells out the limited terms and conditions under which police can seize recordings for evidence.

For photographers and civil rights activists fighting what they perceive as a rising tide of police intimidation and interference against photographers nationwide, the order represents progress. It follows closely a blueprint for police policy to protect the rights of photographers that the US Department of Justice issued earlier this year.

The DOJ blueprint was directed at the Baltimore Police Department, which is being sued for unlawfully seizing, searching and deleting the contents of a citizen’s cell phone after he used it to record police officers making an arrest. The Baltimore Police Department subsequently issued an order declaring that citizens had the right to photograph police activity. But the DOJ said the Baltimore order didn’t go far enough to protect photographers’ (and citizens’) rights because it wasn’t specific enough.

The order issued last week by the Washington DC police department follows the DOJ blueprint almost to the letter, spelling out citizens’ constitutional rights, providing explanations and examples of legal activity and limited exceptions.

The lawsuit lodged against DC police was similar to the case in Baltimore. Jerome Vorus, a student and aspiring photojournalist, began photographing a traffic stop in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC in June, 2010. Police officers told him he was not allowed to photograph, and detained him for half an hour. With help from the ACLU, Vorus sued police for violating his rights. Vorus and the ACLU dropped the claim last week after police agreed to issue the order protecting the right of citizens who photograph the police.

The case in Baltimore, meanwhile, is still pending.

Related stories:
Department of Justice Warns Police Agains Violating Photographers’ Rights
Police Intimidation Watch: Mannie Garcia Files $500K Lawsuit for Unlawful Arrest
Police Intimidation Watch: Photographer Sues Long Island Police Department
Police Intimidation Watch: Boston to Pay $170K for Wrongful Arrest of Videographer

July 12th, 2012

Civil Rights Group Demands End to Use of Same-Sex Couple Photo in Anti-Gay Ad

© Kristina Hill

When wedding photographer Kristina Hill learned that her engagement photo of a same-sex couple had been used without her permission in a political flyer attacking same-sex marriage, she told PDN she wasn’t sure she had the resources to pursue a long legal battle. Now Hill and her clients have an ally. Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the civil rights organization, yesterday sent a cease and desist order to Public Advocate of the United States, a right-wing political organization, demanding they confirm they are no longer using the image. In the order,  SPLC also says they are considering other possible legal action for infringing Hill’s copyright.

Hill’s photo shows Tom Privitere and Brian Edwards, a New Jersey couple, kissing. Public Advocate of the United States used the photo without the permission of Hill or her clients in a flyer attacking Republican Colorado State Senator Jean White, who had supported civil unions for same-sex couples. The photo, digitally altered to strip out the New York City skyline, appears under the words “State Senator Jean White’s idea of ‘family values?’”

Public Advocate had defended its unauthorized use of the image on the grounds that others “make fair use of our materials.”

SPLC has previously labeled Public Advocate “a hate group,” and noted in a statement released yesterday that it has “a history of attacking the LGBT community.” The statement quotes Christine Sun, deputy legal director at the SPLC, saying that the alteration and unauthorized use of Hill’s photo was “morally reprehensible.” Sun says, “This latest attack is the most vicious yet and should serve as a warning that your personal photos are not safe from anyone willing to stoop to the vilest level of harassment.”

In the SPLC statement, Hill says she took the engagement photo to document her clients’ love. “When I saw how my image was used, I was sad for Brian and Tom. I was angry that someone would take my work, distort it and use it to reflect the opposite of what it was meant to express.”

Related Article
Wedding Photographer Might Sue for Copyright Infringement Over Anti-Gay Attack Ad

June 14th, 2012

Police Intimidation Watch: Mannie Garcia Files $500K Lawsuit for Unlawful Arrest

Veteran news photographer Mannie Garcia has sued several Montgomery County, Maryland police officers, alleging violation of his civil rights and physical and emotional suffering as a result of being “manhandled” and arrested without cause in June, 2011. Garcia is seeking $500,000 in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages to be determined.

Garcia, who lost his White House Press Pass as a result of his arrest, was confronted by the police officers after he began recording them arresting two Hispanic men on the night of June 16, 2011. The incident occurred in Wheaton, Maryland after Garcia left a restaurant and happened to see police arresting the men.

According to his claim, Garcia became concerned that the police action “might be inappropriate and/or that they might be using excessive force.” Garcia took his camera out and began recording. He was then approached by one of the officers, and identified himself as a member of the press.

Garcia said nothing else, however, but moved further back when a second officer shined a flashlight in his face.

According to Garcia’s lawsuit, the first officer “did not like the fact that Mr. Garcia continued to record their actions with the camera, so he lost his temper, became enraged, screamed, ‘That’s it!’ and placed Mr. Garcia under arrest.”

Garcia alleges that the first officer placed him in a choke hold, dragged him across the street to a police cruiser, and “repeatedly threw Mr. Garcia to the ground” before handcuffing him. He alleges that he sustained injuries to his neck, shoulder and back “while being manhandled” during his arrest.

According to police reports, Garcia was arrested for disorderly conduct. His camera was confiscated at the scene, and Garcia was taken to a police station, where he alleges that he saw one of the officers remove the battery and memory card from his camera. The camera was eventually returned without the memory card.

While he was awaiting trial, the Secret Service became aware of the charges against him and revoked his White House Press Pass. He was unable to work as a result, he says in his lawsuit.

Finally, Garcia came before a judge in a bench trial last December and was found not guilty on all charges against him.

Garcia is suing on the grounds that the Montgomery Count police officers violated his First, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The violations included unlawful arrest, false imprisonment, cruel and unusual punishment, malicious prosecution, deprivation of his property without due process, and interference with his right of free speech.

In addition to naming the arresting officers as defendants, Garcia is also suing Montgomery County and its chief of police for failing to properly train police officers–specifically, for failing to train them that openly recording a police officer is a lawful act in Maryland.

Garcia also alleges that the county is indifferent to police misconduct, and that it fails to investigate complaints of misconduct or discipline officers who engage in misconduct. (Garcia says his complaints to the police about misconduct of the officers were ignored.)

Garcia filed his claim in the US District Court for the District of Maryland, Southern Division. (Case 8:12-cv-01711-DKC)

A trial date has not been set.

Related articles:

Police Intimidation Watch: Photog Sues a Long Island Police Department
Police Intimidation Watch: Photographers Cleared of Charges in New York, Seattle
Department of Justice Warns Police Against Violating Photographers’ Rights