A U.S. District judge dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday brought forth by an undergraduate student against the city of Philadelphia and two police officers.
Senior actuarial science major Rick Fields and the American Civil Liberties Union are appealing the ruling, the Inquirer reported.
According to the complaint filed by Fields and the ACLU, Fields was wrongfully arrested and detained for photographing police in September 2013. The complaint accuses the Philadelphia Police Department of poor training and “deliberate indifference” towards civilians recording police activity.
“[Fields] was arrested, handcuffed, and prosecuted simply for observing and photographing a police officer at work,” the complaint read.
Fields stopped to photograph police that were breaking up a party across the street on 18th Street near Mifflin the night of Sept. 13, 2013. The complaint says Fields was ordered to leave by Officer Joseph Sisca and when he refused, Fields was handcuffed and his phone taken from him.
The complaint said the phone had a cracked screen and had been used while Fields was sitting in a police car, handcuffed and unable to reach the device.
The lawsuit emphasizes the continued abuse of the public’s right to film on-duty police in public, which is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. It also claims despite a publicized memorandum and directive issued by then Police Chief Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the issue still occurs.
The memorandum, published Sept. 23, 2011, told officers to expect to be filmed and photographed by civilians while on duty.
“Police personnel shall not interfere with any member of the general public or individuals temporarily detained from photographing, videotaping, or audibly recording police,” the memorandum said.
Executive Director of Campus Safety Services Charlie Leone, however, said police need witnesses near an incident to maintain a safe distance.
“It comes down to safety,” he said. “Even if you don’t have a camera, if you’re putting yourself in danger, we’d tell anyone to back away.”
Leone added a “changing culture and society allows for anyone to take out a camera and start recording.”
The memorandum said police officers could not intentionally damage or confiscate recording devices or phones. The only time an officer can take a device is if they believe it contains evidence that will later be deleted, but otherwise officers “have no authority to confiscate the recording devices.”
Fields’s lawsuit includes several other incidents where citizens were arrested while filming or photographing police as evidence of regular misconduct.
One of them was Chris Montgomery, who was studying journalism at Temple at the time. Montgomery was waiting to meet up with friends at 15th and Market streets on Jan. 23, 2011.
“There was a big commotion….There were a bunch of teenagers pestering an older guy,” Montgomery said. The older man had accused the teens of stealing cigarettes, and told them he was going to call the police. As the man continued down the block toward a Wendy’s, the teens followed. Having time to kill, Montgomery said he decided to follow the group and see what would happen.
“Suddenly there were tons of police cars,” he said. “This didn’t warrant six police cars.”
The police started arresting the teens, and Montgomery began to film what was happening.
“One kid was asking, ‘What am I being arrested for?’ and the officer said, ‘For being a dickhead,’” Montgomery said. “After they realized I had gotten this [on camera] they told me to step back, and I did. Then he told me to stop recording, but he didn’t give me a chance before he tried to grab my phone. I didn’t want to let go so I tried to pull away and the officer didn’t like that.”
Montgomery was arrested for disorderly conduct and taken to the 9th Police Precinct at 21st and Hamilton streets, where he was held for 45 minutes. During that time, Montgomery said, police went through his phone and deleted the recordings. Montgomery said the timestamp on modified data happened while he was in custody and had no access to his phone because it was in police possession.
Montgomery and the ACLU settled their lawsuit in May 2015. He declined to disclose the amount of the settlement.
Montgomery said Fields’s lawsuit being dismissed in court will “continue the trend of police being able to pick and choose” the people they arrest.
“Even though a police officer doesn’t have a right to enter without a warrant, it doesn’t mean they won’t,” he said.
Julie Christie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ChristieJules.
Editor’s Note: Chris Montgomery is a former Web Editor of The Temple News. He did not contribute to the editing process of this article.