Updated 9:38 p.m.
A new lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department accuses the authorities of unlawfully taking a man's mobile phone after he used it to snap photos of police interacting with bystanders at the scene of an arrest.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claims officers committed constitutional violations under the First and Fourth Amendments when they seized the man's phone.
The plaintiff, Earl Staley Jr., later that night retrieved his phone from a police station. Staley claims in the complaint that the police have failed to return the phone's memory card. An officer told him last month, according to the suit, an investigation of the missing memory card was ongoing.
"Officers must learn that people have a right to photograph them in public places, and that trying to cover up police misconduct is worse than the initial misconduct," ACLU attorney Arthur Spitzer, said in a prepared statement. "The officer's actions here will have consequences."
The suit said the memory card contained personal information and images of Staley's daughter. Staley said he noticed the card was missing when he returned home and tried to take a photo. His mobile phone, according to the lawsuit, instructed him to insert a memory card.
A spokesman for the police department, Araz Alali, declined to comment on the suit. Alali said the allegations, if true, would have been a violation of police policy even before the department issued new general orders in July that address the rights citizens have to videotape and audio record police in the course of routine conduct on public streets.
Staley said the police confiscated his phone the night of July 19 after he'd taken a photo of what the suit described as a police "assault" on bystanders in Southeast Washington. An officer at the scene that night, according to the suit, allegedly told Staley he'd broken the law for taking a photo.
Later that evening, the suit said, a lieutenant told Staley he must be "discreet" when he takes a photograph of a police officer.
The day before the police took Staley's phone, the Metropolitan Police Department publicly issued new guidelines that address the rights of citizens to videotape and audio record the authorities. The general order was effective July 19.
The general order, issued amid a settlement with a man who'd claimed police wrongly detained him for photographing police activity, affirmed First Amendment rights to video record, photograph and audiotape police in public places.
The order says the police are not allowed to inspect a person's phone, after seizing it, without a warrant. In an emergency situation, the order says, the police can seek permission from a top supervisor to inspect a phone. The police are not allowed to delete photos and recordings, the guidelines say.