ACLU Sues Baltimore Police Over Man's Wrongful Detention, Camera Seizure at Preakness


August 31, 2011

CONTACT: Meredith Curtis, ACLU of Maryland, 410-889-8555;

BALTIMORE, MD - Concerned that the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) routinely violates the First Amendment by threatening citizens who try to photograph or record police encounters, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against BPD on behalf of Christopher Sharp, a man whose personal videos, including many of his young son, were deleted after he filmed BPD officers roughing up a female friend of his in the Clubhouse at the 2010 Preakness Stakes. Video taken of the beating by another observer can be found on YouTube:

The ACLU had notified BPD of the intention to file suit on August 3, and asked that the agency respond within 21 days to indicate how their policy would be revised. BPD has failed to respond.

The lawsuit details how Sharp was detained and harangued by police officers after he recorded the police incident, with the officers demanding that he surrender his cellphone as "evidence". Sharp politely declined, but police continued to demand that he give up his phone. Fearing arrest, he finally handed over the phone to an officer. The police then destroyed the beating videos and all other videos it contained - about two dozen in all - before returning the phone to Sharp.

"Police officers doing their jobs in a public place are accountable to the public they serve, and camera phones have become an important accountability tool," said ACLU Legal Director Deborah Jeon. "It is antithetical to a democracy for the government to tell its citizens that they do not have the right to record what government officials say or do or how they behave in public."

"I'm heartbroken over the videos I lost of my son and I doing things together," said Christopher Sharp. "The videos were keepsakes of memories like his soccer and basketball games, times at the beach and the Howard County fair. It kills me that the police acted as if it was okay for them to could just wipe out some of my fondest memories. I used to trust police, but now I don't anymore, because of how wrongly the police acted here, and because it seemed like this was just routine procedure for them."

The ACLU has long been concerned about improper police threats that Maryland's wiretap law prevents citizens from recording their encounters with the law enforcement. In order for such recording to be illegal under the Maryland law, it must involve audio, and the subjects must have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their communications. In 2010, in a high profile case, the ACLU successfully defended a motorcyclist - Anthony Graber - who faced criminal wiretap charges after he videotaped his encounter with a police officer and posted it to YouTube.

Similar cases have arisen around the country. In a recent high profile case, brought by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the First Circuit Court of Appeals last week rejected claims of qualified immunity by police officers who arrested a Massachusetts man who recorded them using force against another person, and charged him with violating that state's wiretap statute. The Court ruled that persons have a First Amendment right to record in such circumstances.

The ACLU also believes that videos from camera phones can be helpful in improving relations between the community and police by resolving disputes in police encounters. Such videos can provide critical evidence, which sometimes disprove allegations of police misconduct, and sometimes prove such allegations. 

Christopher Sharp is represented by attorneys Richard Simpson, Mary Borja, Craig Smith and Benjamin Kohr from Wiley Rein LLP, in Washington, D.C., and by Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.