The American Civil Liberties Union said it has informed the Baltimore Police Department of its intention to sue on behalf of a man who it says was wrongfully detained and had videos deleted from his cellphone after he filmed officers arresting a friend at the 2010 Preakness.
The ACLU says officers stopped Christopher Sharp and erased his videos, including many of his young son, after he declined to surrender his cellphone as "evidence." The civil liberties group has requested that the Police Department "immediately cease officers' interference with citizens' rights to record encounters with police."
"Police officers doing their jobs in a public place are accountable to the public they serve, and camera phones have become an important accountability tool," the ACLU of Maryland's legal director, Deborah A. Jeon, said in a statement. "It is antithetical to a democracy for the government to tell its citizens that they do not have the right to record what government officials say or do or how they behave in public."
Meredith Curtis, a spokeswoman for the ACLU, said Baltimore police "are routinely taking phones from people. It has to stop."
Asked to respond, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi wrote in an email, "As you know, our longstanding policy is not to comment on pending litigation or threats of litigation."
The issue of recording police garnered attention last year when a motorcyclist, Anthony Graber, was charged in Harford County with videotaping on a helmet-mounted camera his interaction with a Maryland state trooper who had pulled him over at gunpoint for speeding.
Harford County prosecutors filed charges against Graber, and state police raided his home after the video was posted on YouTube. The ACLU successfully defended Graber against criminal charges related to the taping, and the case sparked debate about Maryland's strict wiretapping laws and issues of recording law enforcement officers in public places.
Amid the debate, Guglielmi said Baltimore police had bigger issues to worry about: "We're focused on going after bad guys with guns. We're not focused on going after citizens with video cameras."
The Maryland attorney general's office later issued an opinion advising police agencies that people have a right to record officers and that most interactions between police and the public cannot be considered private.
About the same time, a video of a woman's arrest at the Preakness was posted to YouTube. In the video, a Baltimore officer could be heard telling the person recording that it is "illegal to record anybody's voice or anything else in the state of Maryland."
The ACLU says the incident also was filmed by Sharp, who said officers overheard him telling someone that he had recorded the arrest and demanded that he turn over his cellphone.
Sharp, in a video interview posted online by the ACLU, said officers approached him.
"He and another couple police officers told me that I had to give them the phone for evidence," Sharp said. "I told them I didn't want to, that I didn't think I had to."
Once he turned the phone over to the officers' supervisors, Sharp said, they deleted the video of the arrest and also some home movies.
"I was heartbroken over the videos I lost of my son and I doing things together," Sharp said, such as soccer and basketball games, time at the beach and the Howard County Fair.
"It kills me that the police acted as if it was OK for them to … just wipe out some of my fondest memories," Sharp said. "I used to trust police, but now I don't anymore."