The Legal Aid Society on Wednesday filed a new federal lawsuit seeking court intervention to make the NYPD crack down on a “widespread custom and practice” among cops of interfering with citizens who try to film street encounters on their phones.
Ruben An, 24, of Queens, the plaintiff, was arrested filming three officers in lower Manhattan attending to a man laying on the sidewalk, the suit said, despite the fact that he twice backed away to comply with police orders, and he had to fight in court for a year before a jury cleared him.
Although the NYPD as recently as 2014 issued a reminder to officers that onlookers have a right to film street interactions, An’s lawyer said his case — one of a half-dozen cited in the lawsuit — was typical of the reaction citizens get when they exercise the right.
“It’s not enough to have a rule on paper,” said Bill Silverman of the Manhattan law firm Proskauer Rose, which is working with the Legal Aid Society. “What we need is something in practice. We need supervision. We need training. We need monitoring. We need some kind of serious enforcement of this rule.”
Spokesmen for the city Law Department and for the NYPD said they planned to review the lawsuit when it is received.
The arrest of An, who works with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, was documented on both his own cellphone video and a surveillance camera nearby, and the videos were included with the complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan.
An declined to comment on the 2014 incident at a news conference held by his lawyers and advocates for Cop Watch, a group that advocates citizen-monitoring of police, but according the lawsuit police at first told him he was too close to a police investigation, and then that he was blocking the sidewalk.
After he moved away and backed up against a wall, it said, he was arrested when pedestrians walked by. He was eventually cleared of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration.
But the experience, the suit said, made him skittish about filming police and chilled his desire to exercise his constitutional rights. “We can’t have a situation, a society, where people are prosecuted simply for using their phone, recording something in a public place,” Silverman said.
The lawsuit cites six other federal cases that have been filed in New York over police interference with filming. It says they are a “small fraction” of the number of incidents that have arisen as use of phone cameras to record police behavior has drawn attention in cases such as the choking death of Eric Garner.
An is not seeking damages. The lawsuit asks for a court declaration that filming police is protected by the Constitution, and an injunction to enforce it.