Photographer files civil rights suit against Suffolk County police for arrest while filming in public

Andrea Papagianis | Newsgathering | News | April 12, 2012

A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in New York yesterday on behalf of a video journalist arrested and detained while filming police activities on a public street. The suit points to 13 other reported incidents in which police throughout Long Island have allegedly prevented journalists and citizens from filming police activity.

"When the police arrest journalists for doing their job it jeopardizes the public’s ability to stay informed about important news and events in their community," said Philip Datz, the independent photojournalist who was arrested by a New York police officer in July. "This is an ongoing problem in Suffolk County that continues to this day."

Datz, who works for Stringer News Service, has covered Suffolk County -- which makes up the eastern portion of Long Island -- for more than eight years and said his arrest was not an isolated incident, but was the culminating factor in his decision to take legal action. Weeks after Datz's arrest in Bohemia, N.Y., a police officer in the same town was recorded trying to confiscate a WNBC journalist's camera.

Filed in the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, the lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Datz's arrest and detainment in July. The complaint alleges that Suffolk County police officers repeatedly violated the First Amendment rights of journalists and citizens when they denied them the right to record officers working in public spaces.

The police department declined to comment on the lawsuit, but defended its policy in a statement released yesterday stating that "members of the media shall not be precluded from observing incidents, producing recorded media and commenting regarding an incident, provided they do so from locations that are open to the public. 'Public access equals media access,' regardless of the subject matter."

But Datz disagreed with the department's statement, noting a "widespread culture in the Suffolk County Police Department" that belies the department's stated standard.

"This has happened in almost every precinct across the county at different ranks and different levels," he said. "This isn’t isolated to one person or one officer."

In addition to Datz's arrest, the complaint lists 13 other incidents where police officers have prevented Datz and other members of the media from filming police activity. The most recent of which occurred on April 1, and involved Datz again as he attempted to film the scene of a hit-and-run accident on the Long Island Express service road. According to the complaint, Datz was told he could not film the scene from his current location, but officers did not specify where press could set up. The officers then questioned his press credentials before he was asked to leave the scene all together.

In July, Datz was arrested while he filmed police on a public street after a car chase involving the police ended in a crash. The interactions between Datz and an officer identified as Sgt. Michael Milton were filmed and posted to YouTube. Footage of the incident shows the sergeant approaching Datz and ordering him to move away from the scene, to which Datz complies. The video then shows Datz getting into his car and moving more than a block away where he continues filming from a public sidewalk. Bystanders and pedestrians, including children, are shown standing near the police scene. The road was also open to other traffic.

Once the officer realizes Datz is still filming the scene, the officer is shown speeding his patrol car toward the journalist. The video shows Datz attempting to explain his right to be there, but the sergeant asks him to put down his camera and places Datz under arrest. According to the complaint, Datz was not asked to leave this spot before being arrested.

"The video makes clear that Sgt. Milton acted in an angry and hostile manner with disregard for my constitutional rights," Datz said.

According to the complaint, Datz was handcuffed to a desk, repeatedly denied a phone call and asked to surrender the videotape containing footage of the incident. The videotape also contained other events from that day and was not returned to Datz until an hour after he was released, but by that time Datz was unable to use any footage from the day. Datz was charged with obstruction of justice, but all charges were later dropped.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· News: Photojournalist arrested after filming police on public street

· Police, Protesters and the Press: After an arrest

· News: Filming police in public is protected by the First Amendment