BALTIMORE, MD - Heralding a victory for the First Amendment rights of citizens in interactions with law enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland today announced an agreement with the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) that will enhance police practices and settle long-running litigation alleging violation of a citizen's right to record police activity in public and illegal search and seizure. The lawsuit was brought more than two years ago, on behalf of Christopher Sharp, who alleged that BPD officers deleted two dozen personal videos, including many of his young son, from his cell phone after he had used the phone to record BPD officers violently arresting a female acquaintance at the 2010 Preakness.
The agreement, which includes a settlement payment to Christopher Sharp, was approved today by the Baltimore City Board of Estimates.
"We are proud to join with the Baltimore Police Department to announce a resolution to Christopher Sharp's case that upholds the First Amendment rights of all while supporting public safety," said Deborah A. Jeon, Legal Director of the ACLU of Maryland. "The ACLU is grateful to Mr. Sharp for his courage in taking a stand for the fundamental, democratic right of citizens to use technology to hold government officials accountable for their actions in the public sphere. We also commend Police Commissioner Anthony Batts for his leadership in resolving this dispute and seeking to make the Baltimore Police Department a national model on this important civil rights issue."
Key aspects of the agreement:
- BPD will adopt a new policy that recognizes citizens' rights to record BPD officers while they perform their official duties in public and other places where people have the right to be. The new policy will confirm individuals' constitutional rights to make these recordings and provide specific procedures and directives to help ensure BPD officers' non-interference with those rights.
- BPD will institute training on the new policy and on citizen recording in general. The settlement agreement requires BPD to notify all BPD personnel of the agreement and the substance of their obligations under the newly adopted policy. The settlement agreement also requires several hours training initially with annual follow up training.
- BPD has formally apologized to Christopher Sharp, in writing, for the incident. In addition, BPD will compensate Sharp $25,000 to resolve his claims and, as further part of the settlement, reimburse Sharp's counsel $225,000 for a portion of the costs and legal fees incurred during the litigation.
On May 15, 2010, Christopher Sharp was detained and harangued by police officers after he recorded the police incident, with the officers demanding that he surrender his cell phone 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 - including videos of his young son at sporting events and birthday parties - before returning the phone to Sharp.
"It is really good when two different sides are able to come together and work towards something positive," said plaintiff Christopher Sharp. "What happened to me was wrong. I knew that if the police would do this to me, they were doing it to others. But the police department was never my enemy. Now, the rules are clear and our First Amendment rights will be protected."
In May 2012, the Sharp case was pivotal in spurring the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue an unprecedented legal statement on citizens' rights to record police actions. The DOJ guidance to law enforcement agencies across the country affirmed that citizens have a constitutional right to record police officers publicly performing their official duties. Following the DOJ release, the ACLU contacted Maryland law enforcement agencies to notify them, head off future problems, and promote the protection of the rights of citizens as well as public safety.
"This settlement and the new Police Department procedures and training it requires will go far toward protecting the First Amendment rights of citizens to record police activity," said Mary Borja, attorney with Wiley Rein LLP. "Protecting those rights is particularly important at a time when so many people video record, blog and tweet about events of their daily lives."
Christopher Sharp is represented by attorneys Richard A. 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.