from the shameful dept
In the past year, we applauded two Illinois courts for protecting every citizen's right to record on-duty police, and ruling that a law criminalizing the act is unconstitutional. We similarly pointed to Boston, where a court forced the city to pay someone they arrested for filming the cops. Of course, it's pretty concerning that this was ever in question to begin with—normally, the argument that "you don't need privacy unless you've got something to hide" is fallacious for a number of reasons, but that doesn't extend to people who are empowered and armed, ostensibly with the consent of the citizenry and on the condition that they follow their own strict code of behavior. The fact that there is a clear push to let officers operate without public scrutiny is intolerable on every level.
But, perhaps worse still, there is the fact that police don't always need a law to protect them from the public's lenses—they can just take matters into their own hands. There are plenty of examples of police harassing people who film them, often threatening to arrest them or going ahead and doing it. It's an intimidation tactic, and really just part of a much larger problem, which is that no matter how much a person is in the right (and how much they know it), the police have plenty of ways to make their life hell for a long time before they see justice, if they ever do. This appears to be the case in a recent Chicago lawsuit, where two men allege they were battered, strip-searched and falsely charged for filming a traffic accident caused by a police car.
Benjamin Perez and Bobby Milton sued Chicago and nine police officers in Federal Court.
The men say they were talking outside with some friends in an early morning in August 2011 when a friend rode by on a motorcycle, heading south on Chicago Avenue.
"At the same time, defendant Captain [Kevin Navarro] was driving a marked Chicago Police Department vehicle, an SUV, northbound on South Chicago Avenue in the wrong lane of traffic, heading northbound in the southbound lane," according to the complaint.
"Defendant Captain drove his police vehicle into plaintiffs' friend, who was traveling southbound on his motorcycle, causing plaintiffs' friend to suffer serious injury."
Numerous police officers arrived quickly.
"Defendant officers observed plaintiffs using their cell phones to record the collision scene, and immediately took plaintiff Perez's cell phone and placed handcuffs on him, taking him into custody even though Perez was not doing anything illegal," the complaint states.
"Defendant officers placed Perez in the back of a police car and demanded that Perez show them how to delete the photographs he had taken with his cell phone.
"After plaintiff Perez was taken into custody, plaintiff Milton, who had also been using his cell phone to record the scene, was seated on his motorcycle, when defendant [Officers] Frahm and Hernandez approached him.
"Defendants Frahm and Hernandez grabbed plaintiff Milton, forced him off of his motorcycle, and threw him to the ground.
The suit continues, claiming that the men were taken to the police station and threatened with felony charges if they didn't help officers delete the recording, and one was strip-searched to check for "other cameras and recording devices" (because most people keep a spare iPhone taped to their inner thigh, of course). They are seeking damages for "false arrest, excessive force, unlawful search, conspiracy, false imprisonment, battery, and malicious prosecution".
Now, we don't have the officers' side of the story yet, but the allegations certainly look bad—and it's not hard to find plenty of instances of similar actions by the police. Assuming the complaint is even close to true, hopefully the court recognizes the affront to justice that this kind of police behavior represents, and joins the growing ranks of courts that are affirming the right to record the police and hold them accountable for their actions.