The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has urged a federal court to side with a Howard County man in a lawsuit over his cellphone being seized by Baltimore police at the Preakness Stakes after he filmed officers making an arrest.
The federal attorneys say the lawsuit “presents constitutional questions of great moment in this digital age.” They asked U.S. District Judge Benson Everett Legg to rule that citizens have a right to record police officers and that officers who seize and destroy recordings without a warrant or due process are violating the Fourth and 14th Amendments.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which is representing the plaintiff, Christopher Sharp, said it believes this is the first time the Department of Justice has weighed in on the topic of recording police.
“The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution,” Justice Department attorneys wrote in a “statement of interest” filed Jan. 10 in the case. “They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our governmental officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.”
This is pretty incredible. The federal government rarely urges a federal court to give the government less power. (Yes, in this case it’s local police, but the lpolicy would presumably apply to federal law enforcement officials as well.) I’ve criticized Obama in the past for the fact that his Justice Department continually comes down on the side of more power for cops and prosecutors in federal appeals court cases (even though, to be fair, that’s also the accepted practice).
So huge props to Obama and Holder on this. This would also seem to indicate that if one of these cases eventually gets to the U.S. Supreme Court while Obama is in office, the federal government would again argue in favor of a First Amendment right to record police and other government officials in public—even if it meant opposing, say, Chicago District Attorney Anita Alvarez, the most likely opponent in a case like this.
That would be fun to see.