The Department of Justice issued a rare letter supporting the constitutional rights of a photojournalist suing Montgomery County, Md., police officers who arrested him for taking their pictures while on duty.
The Justice’s Statement of Interest issued Monday urges the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland to uphold citizens’ constitutional rights to record police officers in their public capacity without being arrested or having the recordings unlawfully seized.
“The United States urges the Court to find that both the First and Fourth Amendments protect an individual who peacefully photographs police activity on a public street, if officers arrest the individual and seize the camera of that individual for that activity,” the letter stated.
“Discretionary charges … are all too easily used to curtail expressive conduct or retaliate against individuals for exercising their First Amendment rights.The derogation of these rights erodes public confidence in our police departments, decreases the accountability of our governmental officers, and conflicts with the liberties that the Constitution was designed to uphold."
Freelance photographer Mannie Garcia was arrested for disorderly conduct in June 2011 after he photographed officers arresting two men "using excessive force," the photographer's complaint stated.
According to Garcia, he identified himself as a member of the press and did not interfere with police activity. Garcia also said he was injured by one of the officers.
After he was released, Garcia’s equipment was returned to him, but his camera’s video card was missing. The Secret Service also did not renew Garcia's White House press pass because of the pending criminal charges. The charge against him was eventually dropped.
Garcia filed a civil lawsuit against five police officers and Montgomery County in December.
The letter is “an unusual thing to see,” said Robert Corn-Revere, Garcia's lawyer. It is the second time the department has issued a statement in support of recording police in public, according to the National Press Photographers Association website.
“The Department of Justice filing shows that this is clearly not an isolated problem,” Corn-Revere said in an interview. “It’s happened in one other case, and now this one, that they filed statements to indicate why it inherently violates the First Amendment for arresting people for taking photographs in a public place.”
The Justice Department spoke up in a similar lawsuit, Sharp v. Baltimore City Police Department, when it filed a Statement of Interest and wrote a letter to the Baltimore Police Department criticizing the department's policy on the video recording of police activity. In that case, a man had his phone confiscated and videos deleted after he recorded the arrest of his friend. The suit is still pending.
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