Suffolk County Agrees to $200K Legal Settlement for Video Journalist Who Was Wrongfully Arrested

Members of the Suffolk County Legislature approved a $200,000 legal settlement in June 2014 after a video journalist filed a lawsuit that claimed he was wrongfully arrested for recording police activity in a public area. The settlement also states that all members of the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) must be trained and tested about the public’s First Amendment right to “observe, photograph and record police activity in public locations.” Moreover, the SCPD must create a Police-Media Relations Committee to resolve issues between members of the media and the SCPD. High-ranking SCPD officials as well as representatives from local media outlets will serve on the committee.

cameraman.jpgOn July 30, 2011, Philip Datz, a video journalist who worked for Stringer News Service, a company that sells footage to media outlets, was recording the aftermath of a high speed police chase. He was on the sidewalk and prominently displayed his press credentials. However, Suffolk County Police Sergeant Michael Milton approached Datz and told him to “Go away.” When Datz asked the officer where he should go, Milton responded, “I don’t care where you go. Just go away. Go away…I want you to go away and not stand here and argue with me. Otherwise you’re about to get locked up.” When Datz stated that he was going to call the SCPD’s Public Information Office, Milton replied, “Call the commissioner for all I care. I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

Datz called the Public Information Office and was told that he could record the police incident from one block away. However, after Datz resumed videotaping, Sergeant Milton approached Datz in his police cruiser, jumped out, and turned off the camera. Milton placed Datz under arrest and charged him with obstruction of governmental administration. Milton also confiscated the videotape. About a month after the arrest, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office dropped the charges against Datz. A subsequent investigation by the SCPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau concluded that Milton “made a false arrest and violated Department rules and procedures.”

In 2012, with the legal backing of the National Press Photographers Association and the NYCLU, Datz filed a lawsuit against the SCPD. The lawsuit stated that Datz was falsely arrested for exercising his First Amendment right to record police activity in a public area. After the suit was settled, Datz remarked, “This settlement is a victory for the First Amendment and for the public good. When police arrest journalists just for doing their job, it jeopardizes everyone’s ability to stay informed about important news in their community.”

A training video produced by the SCPD as a result of the lawsuit tells officers that “members of the media cannot be restricted from entering and/or producing recording media from areas that are open to the public, regardless of subject matter.”

The Village Voice has more on this story on its website.

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