Crime Scenes: Man sues police over seized cell phone

Walter Carpenter says he was arrested for using his cell phone to record Baltimore police officers beating two handcuffed men on Baker Street.

Two city officers say they arrested Carpenter for inciting an angry crowd as they detained one drug suspect and wrestled another to the ground to prevent him from swallowing heroin.

The altercation occurred in April, months before a Harford County judge threw out wiretap charges against a motorcyclist who recorded his own traffic stop by a Maryland State Police trooper. The judge ruled this week that citizens are free to record police officers when they're working in public.

Law enforcement agencies are studying the decision for guidance. But in most cases, officers who feel threatened by a camera don't charge that the recording was illegal but rather allege the manner in which the recording was taken was illegal.

On Baker Street, Carpenter was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Prosecutors dropped the case and the 53-year-old sued Sgt. Joseph M. Donato, Officer Ryan W. Hill and the city for $2.5 million alleging false arrest, imprisonment and battery.

City lawyers have yet to file a response in court, and officials declined to comment on the pending litigation. But charging documents Donato filed against Carpenter offer a different version of events.

The case raises important questions, because even if officers are instructed to ignore citizens with cameras, many don't like to be recorded and can find other ways to stop the filming — charging the cameraman with loitering, or interfering with an arrest, or failing to disperse.

Here's the official line from Baltimore police chief spokesman Anthony Guglielmi: "If a member of the public is outside of a crime scene, they are well within their rights to record what they see and hear."

The problem arises when no definitive crime scene is established, such as in the incident on Baker Street. How close is too close? At what point does lawfully recording cops become unlawful interference?

In his lawsuit, Carpenter says he was loading a truck at his business on Baker Street when "he saw two men beating two more handcuffed men further down the street. The men were being kicked and punched repeatedly."

He says he walked to within 100 feet of the confrontation and started filming from his cell phone. After about five minutes, Carpenter said in the suit, Donato came to him and yelled, "Give me that camera." Carpenter refused and said Donato threatened to shoot him with a Taser.

Carpenter said in court papers that he was "slammed faced down into the pavement causing his head to bounce off the sidewalk," and then was kicked and stomped on as he was put in handcuffs. "My cell phone and recording of the incident was confiscated and never returned," his suit says.

But charging documents say Donato and Hill detained two men and cuffed one. The sergeant said he grabbed the second man and ordered him to spit out drugs. Donato then said he grabbed the man's mouth to force it open.

The sergeant said both men fell to the ground and that the man "made accidental contact with the cement." Donato then said he noticed Carpenter standing about 50 feet away "pointing a shiny object" at the officers.

Donato said he ran toward Carpenter, noticed it was a cell phone and ordered the man to leave, saying that Carpenter was shouting profanities and inciting a crowd. The sergeant said Carpenter refused to leave and was arrested to protect "officer safety" and to "disperse the crowd, so that a safe area canvass could be conducted for any additional" drugs.

Two very different stories that await reconciling. Is the problem the camera, the person behind it — or the officer on which it focuses?