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New Jersey appeals court reinstates filmmaker's civil rights suit against Trenton police

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  1. Newsgathering
A New Jersey state appeals court has reinstated a civil right lawsuit filed by a documentary filmmaker who claimed that…

A New Jersey state appeals court has reinstated a civil right lawsuit filed by a documentary filmmaker who claimed that a member of the Trenton Police Department harassed him while he was filming a project on street gangs.

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division concluded in an opinion released last Friday that Kelly Ramos had both a First Amendment and state constitutional right to videotape gang activities as well as interactions between gang members and police officers.

Further, police officers could not rely on qualified immunity claims to defend against Ramos’ civil lawsuit because the law concerning the constitutional protections afforded to Ramos was well established.

“[A] reasonable police officer in 2006 could not have believed he had the absolute right to preclude Ramos from videotaping any gang activities or any interaction of the police with gang members for the purposes of making a documentary film on that topic,” Judge Alexander Waugh, Jr. wrote in the opinion.

Ramos sued the police department in 2008 after having several interactions with police officers two years earlier while working on a project about the emergence of street gangs in Trenton. While videotaping activities of one of the largest gang sects in the city, Ramos claims he was arrested for obstructing traffic, pulled over and ticketed for improper parking and threatened with imprisonment. Most of the interactions alleged in Ramos' lawsuit involved Trenton police officer Herbert Flowers, who is named as a defendant.

A trial court judge dismissed Ramos’ suit in April 2011, concluding that his claims were barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields government actors from legal liability for damages in a civil rights lawsuit if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional law. The judge concluded there was no clearly established right to videotape the police at the time Ramos filmed his interactions between police officers and the gang members.

But the state’s appeals court panel disagreed with that conclusion, citing heavily from Glik v. Cunniffe, a case from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.) in which the court upheld the denial of a qualified immunity defense from police officers who arrested a person for videotaping them with his cell phone.

“Because the creation of a documentary concerning a matter of public interest is a form of news gathering and expressive speech, there was certainly nothing new or novel about Ramos’s filming of police activity,” Judge Waugh wrote. “News footage of police activity has been a fairly regular feature of television news programs since the 1950s or 1960s.”

In returning the case back to the lower court, however, Waugh made clear that the appeals court panel took no position on whether the actions of police officers could be considered “reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions” tailored narrowly enough to overcome Ramos’s civil rights claims.