Man sues D.C. police over alleged camera phone seizure

Neal Augenstein,

WASHINGTON – A federal lawsuit alleges D.C. police seized a resident’s camera phone and kept or destroyed its memory card after the man tried to photograph what he believed was police misconduct.

Earl Staley, of Anacostia in Southeast D.C., attempted to use his smartphone to photograph Metropolitan Police Department officers punching a victim at an accident scene July 20 in Southeast, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court.

“The next thing he knew a hand reached over from behind his shoulder and grabbed his phone. He thought it was being stolen,” says Arthur Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, who is representing Staley.

“He turned around, and what he found was a police officer standing behind him, with his phone,” says Staley.

The suit alleges Officer James O’Bannon snatched the phone. Another officer, Kenneth Dean, incorrectly told Staley he had broken the law by photographing officers, according to the suit.

Staley got his phone back a few hours later at the police station.

“A lieutenant came out, told him it was a mistake the officer had grabbed it from him, apologized, and gave him back his phone,” Spitzer says. “When he got home and took out his phone to take a picture of his little girl, the phone said, ‘Insert memory card.'”

Spitzer says when Staley’s phone was taken it contained a memory card Staley had purchased in 2008, but the card was missing when the phone was returned.

“We’re afraid (the card) has disappeared forever, down some sewer or into some shredder,” says Spitzer.

Spitzer says police did an internal investigation, but six weeks later have not returned the memory card. He says they also have not provided information about what happened to it.

Spitzer says the memory card contains hundreds of priceless photos of his daughter, as well as personal information and account numbers.

Ironically, the incident occurred one day after Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier issued a new general order reminding officers not to interfere with citizens attempting to photograph them doing their jobs in public.

Lanier, in an email, tells WTOP she can’t comment on the specifics of the case, but that “the allegation in this case, if true, would have been a violation of our policy.”

The suit alleges Staley’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech was violated because he was prevented from gathering information, as was his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

As for a remedy, Spitzer says his client wants the memory card returned, as well as monetary compensation for the value of the contents of the card, which Spitzer says he thinks were “really quite valuable.”

Spitzer says the dollar figure would be up to a jury to decide.

WTOP will ask Lanier about the case, when she joins us for “Ask the Chief” at 10 a.m. Tune to 103.5 FM or Listen Live here.

Follow Neal Augenstein and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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