ACLU-PA and Civil Rights Attorneys File Fourth Lawsuit Challenging Illegal Arrests for Observing Philadelphia Police

July 24, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and co-counsel filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of a Temple undergraduate student who was arrested for photographing on-duty Philadelphia police officers. This is the fourth in a series of ACLU-PA lawsuits aimed at stopping the Philadelphia Police Department’s illegal practice of arresting citizens in retaliation for observing or recording the police performing their duties. According to the lawsuit, this practice is routine, despite a September 2011 memo from PPD Commissioner Charles Ramsey reminding officers that individuals have a First Amendment right to photograph and record them.

“Rank-and-file officers clearly have not gotten the message that arresting innocent people simply for photographing or recording police is unconstitutional and unacceptable,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “This is a failure of police leadership, which has known about this problem for years but refused to take serious steps to stop this practice.”

Today’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of Temple undergraduate student Rick Fields, who was walking on the 1900 block of 18th Street on the night of September 13, 2013, when he noticed about 20 police officers across the street evidently clearing out a party. After he took a photo with his iPhone, a police officer ordered him to leave. After Fields refused, he was handcuffed and searched and his phone was confiscated. He was detained for 20-30 minutes in a police van before being given a citation for disorderly conduct for “standing in the area of a police invest[igation] videotapping [sic] w phone.” When his phone was returned to him, Fields realized that police had opened multiple photo and recording apps, apparently in an attempt to find the recordings he had made that evening.

All charges against Fields were dismissed in October 2013.

“I was shocked when this happened to me, and more upset when I learned that this has happened to many other people,” said Rick Fields, now a rising junior at Temple majoring in actuarial science. “I think it is important that all officers of the law keep in mind that their duty to the citizens is to serve and protect, not harass innocent bystanders.”

“Unfortunately, what happened to Mr. Fields is all too common,” said Jonathan H. Feinberg, one of the attorneys representing Fields. “Although the Philadelphia Police Department has written policies that appropriately confirm the First Amendment rights of citizens to observe and record police, the reality is that those policies are not enforced, and officers are not trained about their constitutional responsibilities.”

“The lack of training for police has very likely led to arrests of many other people simply for exercising their right to observe and record law enforcement officers in public,” said Molly-Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the ACLU-PA. “We encourage anyone who has experienced this to contact the ACLU of Pennsylvania.”

The ACLU-PA also launched a social media campaign today (#PAcopwatch) to encourage people to contact the organization with stories about police harassment for recording.

Information about filing a complaint with the ACLU-PA as well as background on the ACLU-PA’s previous lawsuits against the Philadelphia police department challenging the arrest of individuals for photographing police is available at: www.aclupa.org/copwatch

More information about today’s case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: www.aclupa.org/fields

Fields is represented by Tack-Hooper and Mary Catherine Roper of the ACLU-PA; John Grogan and Peter Leckman of Langer, Grogan & Diver, P.C.; Feinberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, & Feinberg; and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.