ACLU Suit Against Baltimore City Police Challenges Legality Of Public Recording

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.

More from Vic Carter
  • deadernie

    “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.”

    Really? Why do you have to even think about somebody recording you? Unless you’re doing something wrong. If they are not close enough to be in an officers way how can it really be a distraction?

    • Hazmat

      Agreed, and as they say in court, “Based on my knowlege and training from the (insert) Police Academy…” Their training should not allow officer to be so distracted by a live camera. If the officer is performing within the rules of law, no camera should matter. More over, an officer performing within the rules of law should welcome that presence of a camera. But we all know that most cops are interested in making numbers and less worried about citizens rights. Getting together to collude on the story that they will tell is tougher when John Q Public can tell the true story.

  • John

    They only understand Dollars!!! I hope the guy gets a boat load and then you’ll see policy change. Of course not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’ll cost them if they don’t. Sad, so sad.

  • J Mohammed

    It ok for the gov to take picture of you when you are driving in your car for speeding. But it not ok for you to take a picture if the police is not doing something wrong. Also why do police have recorder in there car so that they can build a case again if you do something against the law. Right

    • Kay

      I agree with you 100%. If they are not doing anything wrong they should not worry about being taped. I guess it is those crooked cops that have a problem huh???

  • Police Activity

    It goes back to the old adage: “challenge authority”.

    Unless we stand up for our rights, our rights will disappear.

    The officers know what the law is, regarding cameras and the right to video-tape. Any idiot knows it. Their precinct admits that they routinely educate the officers, with regard to cameras.

    The bottom line is that the officers used their power, and intimidation; to perform an illegal siezure of property, and then erased evidence, in an “obstruction of justice”.

    The cops may have been the “good guys” a few decades ago, but now they are competing with the criminals. “Anything goes”, says me and my nightstick.

  • We've Got the Power

    A friend of mine just returned from a recent vacation to New York City.
    It was interesting to hear his first-hand accounts of things there. Things that you don’t learn from the news or media.

    It seems New York City police are now searching people, without probable cause. They just “detain you” and search your person and belongings. If they find an illegal substance in your possession, they arrest you and prosecute with the evidence obtained during the “illegal search”.

    The police in Maryland are known for being unusually agressive, when compared to neighboring states, so my observation is that we, as MD residents, can expect illegal searches to become the “norm” in the future as well.

  • Sezmane

    Unbelievable the police a small minority are crooked and do not wantg to be recorded you heard it here folks it is not against the law but keep two so if they take one and kick your butt you can get that on camera good luck Baltimore!!

  • Exercise your Camera

    I strongly suggest that we all take to video-taping police whenever possible.

    When in a group, all those in the group should video-tape simultaneously with separate phone/cameras.

    A very peaceful, and completely legal exercise of our rights, in passive protest against the abuse of force by law enforcement.

    From the report:
    “I was surrounded by police officers being told I had to give my phone up,” Sharp said.

    In my opinion, this was not a case of “an officer who did not understand the law” , rather this was a group of officers, working together in collaboration to violate the rights of a citizen they swore to protect.

    What are the chances, that they all were unaware of the legalities that their precinct routinely educates them about? You guessed it…

  • Gil Scott

    Power Corrupts

  • Eric

    “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.”

    Your now looking at more than one thing? You should be anyway. You should allways be watching your back as a police officer. Not to mention how many cameras are there in the city to watch over everyone? I am not asking to be recorded but I am. Also what about the in car video cameras that officers have? They could be recording me if they pull me over. If the cops do their job right to begin with then they shouldn’t care if they are recorded.

  • baltimore resident

    the bottom line is this, alot of these so called Law Enforcement persons, only got the job to have power and carry a gun!! They couldn’t handle life without it, and everything is their way and everyone is wrong, and even if they know it is they are not going to say sopmething to a fellow on the scene maybe after but never during.

  • steelheadh2o

    As Gil Scott says, “Power Corrupts.”
    Is it not amazing when you’re drive down the road and a cop comes flying up on your tail only for you to get over and let him go past… Is he going to a crime scene? How about late to his son’s/daughter’s soccer game? or how about if he’s late for “dinner?”

    The “power Trip” most FOP members are on is amazing… They are not allowed to act above the law. They are taught to, “not take things personally. Com’on, get some laws that tell the very people who enforce the law that they must act appropriately.

  • wavejmpr

    A good follow up to this story would be for those cops that have broken the law, what was the punishment? One thing the story left out was the guy on the motorcycle that filmed the State Nazi err I mean State Cop get out his car, gun at the ready with no ID except to say he was a cop. Once he knew he was filmed, the Nazi’s err cops raided his parents home at 4 am and siezed their computers and other equipment. They cited the law that cops cant be fiilmed. Broke the door down raided them like they were jews in WW-2. Wake up Maryland these laws they follow are not the same as the laws we follow. And that is a bad place to be in history.

  • Angel

    All these officers got to do is their JOB, and not let that gun make them think they own the world. They are to protect US, and lately many of Baltimore City Police officers are nothing but crooks and don’t give one damn thing about US the people. OK Rawling, we still waiting for all the CHANGES YOU PROMISE TO MAKE!!!

  • Truename

    If the police are aware of the rights they are breaking, then they are no longer protected by qualified immunity. I would think winning civil suits against the cops would have an improving effect on their behavior.

  • five oh

    burger flippers like filming the police when they are arresting their burger flipping buddies

  • Gofar

    This is just an indicator that shows how far a part our representative are growing in the gap between “we the people” and organized government. The (corporate rich, politicians and law enforcement) and then there is the rest of us.

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