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ACLU Suit Against Baltimore City Police Challenges Legality Of Public Recording

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BALTIMORE (WJZ)–Caught on tape. It seems like everyone’s got a camera and when police make an arrest there’s a good chance someone’s recording.

Vic Carter investigates the growing friction between cops and cameras, and one Maryland man who’s taking police to court.

A young woman’s arrest is caught on tape at the Preakness.  A motorcyclist on I-95 records his own arrest from a helmet cam. And an Inner Harbor skateboarder’s friend records his reprimanding from an officer.

It seems like everyone has a camera, and they’re recording the police who don’t want to be recorded.

Despite what some officers and others across the country have been telling people, it is not illegal to record police officers in a public place. But many officers don’t see it that way.

“It is actually the constitutional right of the person taking the video to record,” said Deborah Jeon, ACLU.

So the ACLU has just filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore City police for confiscating the cell phone camera of Chris Sharp. He was one of several people who caught on tape a controversial arrest at the Preakness.

Perhaps, police officers don’t know that what they’re doing is improper.

“I think the police are on notice that this is the interpretation that the courts are giving,” Jeon said. “It’s hard for them to pretend that they don’t understand that.”

Police officers confronted Sharp, forced him to give up his phone and took it as evidence.

He said he eventually handed over his cell phone because “I was certain I was going to go to jail. I was surrounded by police officers being told I had to give my phone up,” Sharp said.

Later that night, Sharp got his phone back from the police, but all of his pictures and videos were gone.

“Something had been done to the phone,” Sharp said.

The Preakness arrest and precious shots of his son had disappeared.

“That’s just a very vindictive thing to do,” Sharp said.

Courts across the country have ruled the First Amendment allows anyone to record police making arrests in public.

Since almost everyone has a cell phone with a camera those videos can go viral.

Robert Oatman is a former Baltimore County police officer. He says officers need to be able to focus on their job and cameras can interfere.

“You’re there doing your job and the next thing you know somebody’s filming you,” said Oatman , who says unsolicited recording can be a distraction “because I’m now looking at more than one thing.”

The ACLU says that’s no excuse to violate the First Amendment.

“They are trying to discourage citizens from holding them accountable for their actions,” Jeon said.

“I think officers have to say we’re in the open domain and it’s happening all the time. You gotta adjust your behavior and adjust your response accordingly,” Oatman said.

The lawsuit seeks changes in police policy and training so officers understand the law.

“At some point this just has to stop,” Jeon said.

Sharp agrees.

“If this is happening to me, I can’t imagine what’s happened to other people,” he said.

Lawyers for the Baltimore City Police Department say they are in discussions with the ACLU to resolve Sharp’s lawsuit. They say the department routinely reminds officers that the law does allow people to record them in public, and they’re in the process of writing a more comprehensive policy.

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