Man Sues D.C. Police Over Confiscated Smartphone

A southeast Washington man who claims D.C. police violated his constitutional rights filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing an officer of confiscating his smartphone.

According to the lawsuit, Earl Staley was trying to take a picture of what he believed to be police misconduct when the phone was taken from him one day after the police department announced that it's OK to photograph officers on duty and that cameras would no longer be confiscated.

Staley said he was waiting for a bus near the intersection of MLK and Raleigh in Southeast July 20 when he saw a police cruiser hit a motorbike. Officers began hitting the rider, who was on the ground and bleeding, Staley said.

“I was taking a picture with my phone and a vice officer reaches over and snatches my phone,” Staley said. “He tells me that I’m wrong and that I could be arrested, that they could keep my phone -- confiscate it -- in order to put it in evidence for the case that they were investigating right there.”

Staley said he was told he could reclaim his camera phone at the 7th District police headquarters on Alabama Avenue. He said when he finally got it back, the SIM memory card containing all of his data, passwords and pictures and had been removed. He believes it was disposed of or destroyed.

Staley’s upset about losing several years of pictures of his daughter, who is about to turn 4.

“Three years of pictures that I won’t get back,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital filed the federal lawsuit against the District of Columbia and two police officers, saying they violated Staley’s constitutional rights of freedom of expression and the protection against the unreasonable search and seizure of property.

“It’s ironic that all this happened one day after the police department issued a new general order reminding the troops people have the right to photograph you,” said Arthur Spitzer, of the ACLU. “If people are taking your picture, don’t stop them. You definitely can’t take their camera. So obviously the word had not gotten out yet to this officer, or if it did, he ignored it.”

The police department referred all questions to the Office of the Attorney General. City lawyers have not fully reviewed the facts and will file the legal papers to answer the complaint within the next few weeks as required by law.

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