ACLU Sues D.C. Police officer for stealing citizen’s smartphone memory card

September 05, 2012
Staley v. District of Columbia

The ACLU of the Nation’s Capital today filed a lawsuit on behalf of Earl Staley Jr., a Washington resident whose smartphone was wrongly seized by a D.C. police officer when Mr. Staley used it to photograph another officer mistreating a citizen. The phone was later returned without its memory card, which contained material of great value.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges that on July 20, 2012, MPD Officer James O’Bannon snatched Earl Staley’s smartphone from his hands when he saw Mr. Staley take a photo of another officer assaulting bystanders at the scene of an arrest. When Mr. Staley later got his phone back at the police station its memory card was gone, but officers at the station denied knowing anything about any memory card. After six weeks of alleged internal investigation, the MPD still has no explanation for Mr. Staley.

Mr. Staley had acquired that memory card in 2008 and had been using it since that time.  It contained all of Mr. Staley’s photographs of his young daughter since her birth and other irreplaceable personal photographs, plus sensitive information such as financial account numbers, passwords and contact lists, and music he had purchased.

“When a police officer sees a camera he should smile,” said Arthur B. Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital and the attorney representing Mr. Staley. “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. The officer’s actions here will have consequences.”

The lawsuit seeks compensation for the violation of Mr. Staley’s rights under the First Amendment, which protects the right to gather information, and the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits improper searches and seizures, and for the value of Mr. Staley’s memory chip and its contents. It also asks the court to order the MPD to train its members about the rights of photographers.

“That memory card had a lot of my life on it,” said Mr. Staley. “I can never replace those photos of my daughter’s first years. The police had no right to steal it. They’re supposed to enforce the law, not break it.”

Added Benétta M. Standly, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, “Mr. Staley’s memory card has probably been destroyed to cover up police misconduct. MPD must learn that it is under increased public scrutiny, and the First Amendment can't be covered up. The MPD should take strong action against this kind of police behavior.”

Ironically, these events occurred just one day after the MPD issued a General Order recognizing that members of the public have a First Amendment right to photograph or record police officers performing their duties in public. The General Order specifically provides that MPD members “shall not . . . [i]n any way threaten, intimidate or otherwise discourage an individual from recording members’ enforcement activities,” and prohibits officers from seizing cameras unless an “official with supervisory authority” is present at the scene.

“The D.C. Police Department has a good official policy on bystander photography,” said Mr. Spitzer. “Now we have to see how they enforce it.”

Under court rules, the defendants will have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit after copies are served on them.