Oregon Cop's Inability To Keep His Hands Off A Resident's Phone Costs Taxpayers $85,000 In Legal Fees
from the stop-touching-other-people's-stuff dept
Oregon residents will be opening up their wallets and handing out $85,000 to a citizen and her ACLU representation, thanks to a police officer being the only cop on the scene unable to handle being filmed while effecting an arrest.
Carrie Medina sued the city of Portland in early 2015 after an officer seized her camera and ended her livestream of an arrest two years earlier. The lawsuit [PDF], filed by the ACLU, contains the full conversation between Officer Taylor Letsis and Medina during the livestream’s premature conclusion.
It contains some choice highlights in law enforcement overreach and the assertion of nonexistent authority. The confrontation starts with Officer Letsis claiming Medina’s phone probably contains “evidence of a crime,” and continues on through to Letsis claiming his seizure and search of the phone is neither a seizure or a search but is very definitely something he has the “legal jurisdiction” to do.
After some back and forth with Medina about his supposed “legal jurisdiction,” Letsis decided to seize the phone and view the recording of the arrest. And by “seize,” I mean “rip Medina’s phone out of her hand.”
According to the lawsuit, Medina had offered to provide the video footage to the officer if he gave her a subpoena. After he grabbed the phone, a prompt popped up on the Ustream app to archive the video. Medina, concerned the officer wasn’t going to save the video, urged him to archive it. He did, and she then walked him through the process of posting it to a social media site, the suit says.
The officer handed the phone back to Medina and ordered her to show him the video and she complied, since he had posted it for her on social media.
Then he seized it again.
“As soon as Ms. Medina pressed ‘play’ to start the video, Officer Letsis grabbed the phone from her a second time,” the suit says. “Officer Letsis did so without warning, and without the consent of Ms. Medina, despite the absence of any probable cause – or any reason at all – to suspect either that Ms. Medina had committed a crime, that the phone contained evidence of a crime, or that the evidence (which he himself had just archived to the Ustream web server) was in any danger of being destroyed.”
The lawsuit goes on to point out Gresham police officials dug their own hole with their post-incident statements, which claimed nothing illegal had occurred and no department policies had been violated.
On approximately February 15, 2013, KGW television published a report on the incident. During the report, a person identified as Gresham police spokesman Claudio Grandjean asserted that Officer Letsis’ conduct during the encounter had been legal. Officer Grandjean stated:
“He wasn’t doing something illegal. Now, was he inappropriate, or… or or a little rough, or officious or whatever? We can look at that, but that’s not nearly as important as was he doing something illegal.”
Thus, three days after the incident, the Gresham Police Department took a clear and public position that the actions of Officer Letsis were lawful.
And this, from the police chief, issued nearly a month after the incident:
In the March 5, 2013 memorandum, the Chief stated that “I highly discourage the seizing of property, or the arresting of persons, for simply recording your official actions without your knowledge.”
In the March 5, 2013 memorandum, the Chief stated that “I support the reasonable actions of officers to seize cell phones when there is probable cause to believe the recording contains evidence of a crime and there are exigent circumstances to seize the cell phone to prevent the destruction or loss of the evidence,” but went on to warn that “[i]f no exigent circumstances that place the property at risk of destruction, you must obtain a search warrant to download the video.”
According to the ACLU, these statements indicated officers had not received proper training in respecting the First and Fourth Amendment rights of citizens. That pretty much nailed things down case-wise, as proving “failure to train” is a key element in lawsuits seeking to hold government agencies and employees accountable for their constitutional violations.
Understandably, the three entities being sued decided to settle [PDF] rather than see this debacle rack up even greater monetary losses in front of a jury.
The settlement agreement stipulated that Portland and Gresham must adopt new police policies and training regarding the public’s right to film police activities. The City of Gresham’s new policy under the settlement went into effect in May 2016 and the City of Portland’s new policy went into effect in October 2016. The City of Gresham was also required to pay $85,000 in legal fees to Medina.
The victim of police misconduct only asked for legal fees, which she has donated to the ACLU which represented her pro bono. More important to Medina (and the ACLU) was the establishment of department and city policies recognizing the public’s right to hold their public servants accountable through public recordings.
The ACLU notes, however, that the new policies don’t appear to have reached every officer covered by them.
Oregon law is now clear that the public has the right to record law enforcement doing their jobs in public, but dos Santos says the ACLU of Oregon still hears from people who have been hassled, detained, or arrested, or who have had their devices confiscated for filming the police, including an incident in Portland last November involving another local activist, Benjamin Kerensa.
“We still see arrests, detentions, and seizures simply for filming the police,” dos Santos said. “With this settlement, we hope that law enforcement across the state will finally respect the public’s right to record. Otherwise, we’ll see them in court again.”
Old habits die hard. And the oldest habits always seem to be the worst ones. The sooner these are broken (or, conversely, the sooner those who can’t break them are forced out of jobs), the less expensive it will be for Oregon’s taxpayers.