Baltimore police rebuked by federal judge in taping lawsuit

A federal judge has ordered Baltimore police to halt a "veritable witch hunt" into the personal life of a man who alleges that his camera was seized as he filmed an arrest.

In a ruling unsealed Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Gauvey said the department must pay $1,000 for a "not so subtle attempt to intimidate the plaintiff" in a civil suit against the department.

She took issue with tactics employed against Christopher Sharp, who sued the department two years ago, alleging that officers deleted images from his phone after he recorded a female friend being beaten by officers at the 2010 Preakness Stakes.

The U.S. Justice Department has sided with Sharp, and the case has led to new department policies upholding the rights of citizens to record police.

But according to court records, the department continued to challenge Sharp's credibility in the civil case — contacting his ex-wife and former employers and seeking to determine "whether or not the plaintiff is a drug addict," according to a court filing by the department.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is helping to represent Sharp, and argued in court filings that the efforts were intimidation and harassment.

Gauvey agreed, saying that the police inquiries were "an appalling and apparent attempt to squeeze the plaintiff with questions that would almost certainly never be permitted in court."

In an unusual move, Gauvey ordered the payment and said the department's attorneys would have to seek court permission for further contact with anyone as they seek to gather information in the case.

City Solicitor George Nilson said he believed the requests for information on Sharp had been "benign" and "legitimate," but that the city is unlikely to fight the ruling.

He said the city will continue to dispute Sharp's allegations, saying that the plaintiff has been "utterly unable" to identify the officer who he alleges took his phone despite having been provided hundreds of names and pictures of police working that day.

"Tell us who it was," Nilson said.

In court filings, the Police Department's chief legal counsel, Mark Grimes, had argued that Sharp and his lawyers were trying to "handcuff the BPD in its pursuit of facts."

"In short, Mr. Sharp believes that the defendants are not entitled to a defense," Grimes wrote.

The ACLU's legal director, Deborah Jeon, welcomed the judge's ruling.

"We very much appreciate the court's recognition that overzealous and unprofessional litigation tactics such as those engaged in by BPD counsel here have no place in any case — let alone in a Maryland civil rights case," Jeon said in a statement.

Sharp alleges that images of the arrest, along with family photos, were erased from the phone by police.

The Justice Department's civil rights division has urged the court to find in Sharp's favor, saying that seizing and destroying recordings without a warrant violates constitutional guarantees of due process and protections against illegal searches.

After weighing in on the Baltimore incident, the Justice Department has sided with plaintiffs in similar cases.

Baltimore police dispute the ACLU's contention that what happened to Sharp is part of a pattern of abuse and contend that policy changes have been sufficient to guide officers on citizens' rights to record. Officials said other cities have contacted Baltimore for guidance in drafting their policies.

But Justice Department attorneys said Baltimore's policy changes did not go far enough.

The day after the new policy became public, police officers were caught on video threatening to arrest a man for loitering in Federal Hill. The man had been recording them as they held someone on the ground.

The ACLU had said a lawsuit could have been avoided if police had worked to develop clearer policies and had acknowledged that Sharp should have been able to record the incident. But the Police Department did not respond to that request, prompting the lawsuit in August 2011.

"It was the Police Department's refusal to admit it was wrong that made me take this to court, and the department's lawyers have done everything they could to make that process more difficult," Sharp said in a statement released by the ACLU.

The issue of recording police garnered attention in 2010 when a motorcyclist was charged in Harford County with videotaping on a helmet-mounted camera his interaction with a state trooper who had pulled him over at gunpoint for speeding. The man was acquitted and the Maryland attorney general's office later issued an opinion advising police agencies that people have a right to record officers.

In August 2012, police told Sharp of their intention to subpoena medical records related to a hair follicle test and served subpoenas for Sharp's phone records and information from a previous employer, Laurel Park racetrack. In addition, they contacted his ex-wife, her current boyfriend and her mother, which his attorneys described as "running amok in Sharp's personal life."

Gauvey said the contacts with people in Sharp's personal life were not necessarily improper, as it was possible that Sharp had shared his version of the Preakness incident with them. But excerpts of the depositions "presented a picture of defense counsel 'working [the] plaintiff over' — asking irrelevant and personal questions about his custody arrangements for his young son and his divorce proceedings."

A. Dwight Pettit, an attorney who is not involved in Sharp's case but who has filed numerous lawsuits against the city, called Gauvey's decision "unusual, but very positive."

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