By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A film student was arrested and his camera confiscated after New York City police officers noticed him filming the outside of a police precinct. Believing the entire incident to be a violation of his civil rights, the student has filed suit against the NYPD and the city.
Justin Thomas, a Brooklyn film student, was prepping b-roll footage for his senior project outside of the 72nd precinct on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. Officer Viet Cao and an unidentified officer noticed Thomas and an associate filming the precinct building and ordered them to cease recording. Thomas notified the Cao of his right to film but, according to the complaint, Cao and the unidentified officer, grabbed Thomas’ arm and “jerked him forward, stating that he was under arrest.” It is also alleged that Cao forcibly removed the camera from Thomas’ friend, turned it off, and removed the memory card in an attempt to eliminate any relevant evidence. Unbeknownst to the officers at the time, the camera had two memory cards, one of which captured the entire ordeal on tape (also see the video below).
Thomas, through his attorney David Rankin, filed suit on Wednesday in Brooklyn’s federal court asserting that Thomas was deprived of his liberty, denied his freedom of speech, and was injured psychologically and emotionally by this incident.
Thomas’ arrest was an act of “direct retaliation,” the suit alleges. Because Cao did not like that fact that Thomas was filming the outside of a precinct house, an act that is covered by the free speech protections of the United States Constitution, Cao allegedly detained Thomas without “having any probable cause to arrest [Thomas] for any offense.”
NYPD’s disregard for individual rights is rampant the suit contends. The “repeated occurrence of similar wrongful conduct,” the suit argues, is evidence of an “existence of…unconstitutional customs and policies” within the NYPD. The suit lists a sampling of over eight claims filed against the NYPD between 2007 and 2013 where it is alleged that the police arrested individuals for taking photographs of NYPD.
New York law allows for individuals to film and photograph images in public view so long as the filming does not interfere with law enforcement activity. In fact, NYPD Patrol Guide Section 212-49 specifically advises its officers that “Members of the service will not interfere with the videotaping or the photographing of incidents in public places. Intentional interference such as blocking or obstructing cameras or harassing the photographer constitutes censorship.” Given the explicit instructions to NYPD officers that public filming constitutes legal activity, Thomas’ alleges that repeated arrests of individuals for filming or photographing NYPD officers shows that this conduct is “encouraged and/or condoned by supervisory and policy-making officer and officials of the NYPD and City.”
“The NYPD is being hostile towards journalists,” Rankin told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Rankin, who has done work for various cop watch organizations, noted that all too often police officers will confiscate a camera or a cell phone and attempt to erase data before returning the item.
Thomas is not only suing the NYPD for malfeasance but also for a transgression of nonfeasance. Thomas alleges that while he was being unlawfully detained, an unidentified officer, who was present for the whole ordeal, did not come to Thomas’ aid to correct the ill being perpetrated upon him. “Members of the NYPD have an affirmative duty… to intervene where they observe another member of the NYPD…employing unjustified and excessive force against a citizen,” Thomas’ suit notes. It is therefore alleged, that the unidentified officer’s non-action, violated a right and a duty owed Thomas.
As with any form of civil litigation, we cannot take back what happened,” Rankin said. “This case is about vindicating the rights of photographers generally. We are sending a message to the NYPD that arresting people for filming in public areas will not be tolerated,” Rankin concluded.