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Baltimore Settles Lawsuit over Confiscation of Cell Phone Recording of Arrest

The City of Baltimore has settled a lawsuit filed by a citizen at Pimlico Racetrack who filmed an arrest at the track and whose cell phone camera was confiscated by police. Christopher Sharp was told by a Baltimore city officer, “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to record anybody’s voice or anything else.” The police then confiscated his phone; they erased not only video of the arrest, but also some family videos.

Sharp, assisted by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in the City Court of Baltimore and later removed the suit to federal court, alleging First Amendment violations. After four years, the Baltimore Police Department entered into a settlement with Sharp and his attorneys, gave Sharp a formal written apology from the police commissioner, and instituted a new department policy spelling out expectations of city officers being recorded.

According to the police commissioner Anthony Batts, “I think it’s pretty clear people have the right to film what we do. You guys are doing it right now so it should be a norm for this organization.” Batts has instituted a policy whereby all officers going through training will be taught that they can never tell a citizen to stop recording as long as they are somewhere where you have a legal right to be. The policy also makes clear that no officer can confiscate your phone just because you have video that they don’t want you to see.

According to the ACLU, “The Sharp case was pivotal in spurring the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue an unprecedented legal statement in 2012 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.”

Under the terms of the settlement, approved by the City Board of Estimates, Sharp will receive $25,000 in damages and the ACLU will receive $225,000 as and for attorneys' fees. The settlement also requires that the City of Baltimore institute policies, procedures, and training to prevent a repeat of the incident. See: Sharp v Baltimore Police Department, Circuit Court for Baltimore City, case no 24C11005636, filed on 08/31/2011. Copies of the complaint and settlement agreement are also saved on the PLN website.



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Related legal case

Sharp v Baltimore Police Department