Photojournalist sues cop, Suffolk County, N.Y., over right to videotape police

Photojournalist Phil Datz has sued Suffolk County, N.Y. and the officer who arrested him while he was filming a police scene last year. Attorneys for the National Press Photographers Association, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Davis Wright Tremaine are representing Datz in the lawsuit that claims the arrest violated his First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Datz, an independent photojournalist who often covers breaking news for Stringer News Service, was recording from a sidewalk on July 29, 2011, when Sgt. Michael Milton told him to leave. Bystanders, however, were allowed to remain nearby.

When Mr. Datz resumed filming from a location further removed from the police scene, Sergeant Milton — clearly irate at what he saw as a challenge to his authority — sped his patrol car at high speed directly at Mr. Datz, forcibly seized his camera and videotape, and arrested him.

Datz’s shoulder was hurt when he was arrested, and he didn’t get his videotape back until hours later, after it was no longer newsworthy, the lawsuit claims. He was charged with “obstructing governmental administration,” but the charge was dropped.

The lawsuit says that county police officers “have a longstanding and ongoing pattern of unlawfully interfering with the recording of police activity conducted in public view.” That’s why, according to the lawsuit, Milton declared, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. There’s nothing you can hold over my head.”

The lawsuit describes 13 other incidents going back to 2009 in which Suffolk County police have interfered with Datz’s attempts to film police scenes by telling him to stop recording, ordering him to leave, expanding the perimeter of crime scenes and blocking his view.

One time, Datz and another journalist were filming a homicide scene from a nearby yard, with the permission of the property owner. An officer told them to leave and said “he was rescinding the homeowner’s permission for them to be on her property,” the lawsuit states. The officer then placed crime tape around the homeowner’s property to keep the media away.

The lawsuit asks that Suffolk County establish a policy that allows the public and the press to observe and record public police activity, and to train its officers on the issue. It also seeks compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.

NPPA president Sean Elliot says in a news release that incidents of police interference have been increasing. Photojournalists clashed with police frequently during the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and around the country.

The full complaint is available here.

The YouTube video of the incident has been viewed about 223,000 times.

Related: How journalists can protect themselves & the news they’ve gathered if arrested on the job

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  • Barry Catlett

    I just showed this video to one of my classes today while talking about media law and our right of access to news scenes. Good for Phil Datz. That jerk Sergeant Milton should have been fired. Cops are worse than ever these days on this issue.

  • Poynter

    I think Datz and his lawyers agree with you; the news release and the lawsuit specifically argue that the public has this right as well.

    Steve Myers

  • Leila

    This is a very important action and I commend Datz for bringing suit. That said, this needs to go beyond the rights of the press, which should be protected by the First Amendment against the likes of Sergeant Milton. Citizens should also be allowed to film police activity in the interests of public safety and police accountability. The press can’t always be there the instant something is happening.