A pair of Metropolitan Police Department officers illegally seized a man’s camera phone after the man photographed officers trying to intimidate witnesses of an arrest, the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit comes a little more than a month after the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital settled a similar lawsuit against the department that involved officers who detained a freelance photojournalist who took pictures of a traffic stop in Georgetown in 2010. As a part of that case, the department issued new general orders that emphasized citizens’ rights to photograph police officers and outlined new protocol involving the seizure of cameras when they need to be used as evidence.
“Officers must learn that people have a right to photograph them in public places, and that trying to cover up police misconduct is worse than the initial misconduct,” ACLU legal director Arthur B. Spitzer said in a statement.
The latest lawsuit argues that Officers James O’Bannon and Kenneth Dean, of the police department’s 7th District, seized the cellphone of D.C. resident Earl Staley Jr. as the officers made an arrest July 20. Mr. Staley got his cellphone back from the 7th District police station later that day, but the memory card for the phone was missing and has never been recovered.
“Even before the new policy was developed and issued the allegation in this case, if true, would have been a violation of our policy before the new General Order was released,” she wrote in an email response to questions.
According to the lawsuit, the incident started when Mr. Staley saw a police cruiser strike a motorbike and two officers get out of the cruiser and punch the driver of the motorbike while he lay on the ground. Mr. Staley took out his cellphone camera to record the incident, which occurred at Raleigh Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast, but decided against it after the officers stopped.
Another officer, who was not identified, arrived on the scene and began “aggressively demanding that bystanders leave the scene, including making physical contact by ‘chest bumping’ some of the bystanders,” the lawsuit states. Mr. Staley took a photo of the officer’s actions but Officer O’Bannon snatched the phone from his hands and refused to give it back, saying it was being confiscated as evidence of a crime. Officer Dean then incorrectly told Mr. Staley that it was illegal to photograph police and threatened to arrest him.
Later that evening, Mr. Staley went to the police station to retrieve his phone and was told by a lieutenant there to be “discreet” when photographing police, the lawsuit states. Mr. Staley was able to get his cellphone back that night but it was missing its memory card, which contained personal information, including family photos dating back to 2008. Despite speaking with investigators who assured him that an internal investigation into the incident was ongoing, Mr. Staley has not gotten the memory card back.
“Mr. Staley’s memory card has probably been destroyed to cover up police misconduct,” said Benetta M. Standly, executive director of the District’s ACLU. “The MPD should take strong action against this kind of police behavior.”
A spokesman for the District’s office of the attorney general said officials are looking into the allegations made in the lawsuit.