ACLU sues Philly police for allegedly harassing man who videotaped arrests

The Pennsylvania ACLU on Wednesday co-filed a federal lawsuit alleging First Amendment rights violations on behalf of Christopher Montgomery, a Philadelphia man charged with disorderly conduct in January 2011 after using his cell phone to record a crowd of young people being arrested in Center City.

“When George Holliday recorded the beating of Rodney King, he taught us that ordinary people can use ordinary resources to fight police misconduct,” state ACLU director Reggie Shuford said in a statement. “It is essential that we preserve the right – and the tools – for holding our public officials accountable for their behavior.”

The suit alleges First Amendment retaliation, malicious prosecution, illegal search and seizure and false arrest and imprisonment.

According to the complaint, Montgomery and a friend were waiting at 15th and Market streets for friends to arrive on Jan. 23, 2011 when they saw a verbal altercation between a group of young people and an older man. The fight drew a crowd of onlookers that moved down the block and into a nearby Wendy’s.

Police soon arrived and began taking some of the youth into custody. Montgomery, a photojournalist, “was concerned with the size of the police response and wanted to observe their activity” and began filming the arrests on his iPhone, court documents state.

He filmed several of those exchanges from a reasonable distance without incident.

The trouble began when Montgomery caught on tape one particularly contentious exchange during which he said an officer told a young man that he was being arrested “for being a dickhead,” according to the complaint.

That was when, according to Montgomery, an officer arrested him, took his phone and deleted the video. He was issued a citation for disorderly conduct, but successfully appealed the charge several months later.

Montgomery is seeking compensatory and punitive damages whose amount has not yet been determined, as well as attorney’s fees.

The suit alleges the incident wasn’t isolated, but that supervisory officials in the department “knew that PPD officers routinely retaliated against civilians for watching and/or recording them,” but rather than disciplining those officers, they “instead encouraged and directed such practices.”

The ACLU said the suit is the first in what will be a series of legal actions taken against Philadelphia police officers, who they say “routinely manufacture criminal charges to retaliate against individuals who observe or record police activity.”

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