Amid public controversy and civil law suits against the department, Baltimore PD finally issued a directive ordering officers to stand down against citizens wielding recordable electronics. The directive followed a hail of negative publicity from several incidents involving arrests and confiscation because officers were being taped.
One particular case seemingly inspired the recent move as it approaches its day in the U.S. District Court of Maryland. The issue sought to be ruled upon involves the Constitutionality of a citizen's right to videotape police action. In this suit, a Howard County man filed charges against the Baltimore police for seizing his cell phone and erasing all his videos. This occurred immediately after he filmed the officers making an arrest at the Preakness Stakes.
Supporting briefs have been submitted by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, urging the Court to uphold First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment values and deny the police departments motion to dismiss. The Plaintiff, represented by the ACLU, was asking for affirmative law and policy stating that citizens have a right to videotape police conduct, and it seems he has received that.
This issue has been simmering for years. In several high profile cases, police have attempted to file criminal charges against videographers who expose questionable police practices. In 2010, a Harford County man was arrested and indicted for violating federal wiretap laws when his helmet camera filmed a plain-clothed officer pull him over at gunpoint for speeding. He posted the video online resulting in the trumped-up federal charges. And with the help of a criminal defense attorney the indictment was subsequently overturned by a Maryland judge.
If you search the internet you can find dozens of videos depicting police action, in addition to stories from videographers who were subject to criminal charges. In Massachusetts a woman was arrested and criminally charged for taping a brutal beating; the officer in that case was eventually fired and the prosecutor refused to press charges against her. Recently, the issue arose in D.C. when video of a wheelchair-bound man being lifted from his seat and thrown to the ground was posted on YouTube. Officers arrested the videographer but the charges were dropped.
The directive by the Baltimore Police Department signifies a positive shift in law enforcement policy. Officers still reserve the right to seize images that may be evidence of a crime and prevent filming if it interferes with the "successful resolution" of police activity. However, the department's move tells officers that it is not ok to arrest and threaten videographers unless they interfere with execution of their duties. This new policy also may indicate a respect for the public's ability to "check" law enforcement power. If officers know their misdeeds will be broadcast, perhaps fewer of them will occur.