-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger
In May 2010, Christopher Sharp used his cell phone camera to record Baltimore City Police officers arrest and beat a female acquaintance at the Plimlico Race Course. The officers detained Sharp, seized his cell phone, and returned it later with all his videos deleted, including videos of his young son at sports events. Sharp filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City Maryland which was later moved the United States District Court for the district of Maryland.
The United States Department of Justice has decided to get involved, on the side of Sharp.
The DOJ filed a Statement of Interest of the United States with the District Court. The statement starts off with a bang:
This litigation presents constitutional questions of great moment in this digital age: whether private citizens have a First Amendment right to record police officers in the public discharge of their duties, and whether officers violate citizens’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they seize and destroy such recordings without a warrant or due process. The United States urges this Court to answer both of those questions in the affirmative.
The DOJ statement claims that the First Amendment protects the recording of police officers performing their duties in public. The statement cites the case of Glik v. Cunniffe (2011) wherein the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that the First Amendment “unambiguously” protects the right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public.
The DOJ statement also notes that in Roaden v. Kentucky (1973), the United States Supreme Court found that material that is protected under the First Amendment and is seized by a police officer, “without the authority of a constitutionally sufficient warrant, is plainly a form of prior restraint and is, in those circumstances, unreasonable under Fourth Amendment standards.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth District, in Altman v. City of High Point North Carolina (2003) wrote that “[a] seizure of personal property conducted without a warrant is presumptively unreasonable.”
The DOJ statement argues that the seizure and destruction of Sharp’s property without due process is prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment. In the case of Mathews v. Eldridge (1976), the United States Supreme Court wrote that the “right to be heard before being condemned to suffer grievous loss of any kind … is a principle basic to our society.” Lofty words, frequently forgotten.
While it’s about time the DOJ started weighting in on these violations of a citizen’s constitutional rights, unless punishments are meted out to the officers involved, nothing will change. As long as officers can get away with this unconstitutional activity, the activity will continue. This is not an issue of training, it is an issue of discipline.
If the DOJ is sincere about their desire to prevent these constitutional abuses from continuing, they should bring charges against the officers for violation of 18 U.S. Code – Section 242, Deprivation of rights under color of law.