The American Civil Liberties Union filed what it said was the first of several civil rights lawsuits Wednesday accusing Philadelphia police of wrongfully intimidating and arresting people who try to videotape them.
The case, brought on behalf of a Temple University journalism student, highlights a 21st-century pitfall for police: Their every public move can be captured and shown worldwide by almost any passerby with a phone.
On Jan. 23, 2011, Chris Montgomery was that passerby.
According to his lawsuit, Montgomery, then 22, was with a friend at 15th and Market Streets when an argument broke out between a group of young men and an older man. The fracas moved a block south, and the young men filed into a restaurant.
Minutes later, police cars swarmed the scene. The older man began directing officers toward the younger men, who he said had robbed him.
Montgomery, sensing something might happen, pulled out his iPhone and began recording. His camera was running, he said, when one police officer began arguing with a suspect, telling the young man he was being arrested "for being a [expletive]."
Montgomery sensed the footage might be significant. "I was planning on uploading it to YouTube or something like that," he said in an interview Wednesday.
Instead, he said, an officer ordered him to stop recording, then grabbed his hands, walked him to a police car, and placed him under arrest.
Montgomery sat in a police cell, the suit says, while the officer, David Killingsworth, and others erased the video. Then they cited him for disorderly conduct.
Municipal Court Judge Kenneth Powell Jr. found Montgomery guilty and ordered him to perform 24 hours of community service. Powell said Montgomery invaded the officer's privacy.
"I mean, how [are] police officers going to do their jobs if they are afraid to do anything because someone is out there with a camera?" the judge told Montgomery, according to a transcript of the hearing. "Go tape people walking under the Clothespin statue if you want to get a journalism award, but not cops."
With help from the ACLU, Montgomery appealed his conviction. It was overturned when Killingsworth failed to show up for the appeal hearing, he said.
Montgomery's lawsuit asserts that the arrest was a practice, not an isolated incident. It cites six other cases in which Philadelphia police allegedly investigated or arrested people who photographed officers.
In September 2011, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey issued a memorandum reminding officers they could be videotaped doing their jobs. Lawyers for Montgomery and the ACLU say the policy has been ignored.
"What is extremely discouraging to us is that since that directive was issued by Commissioner Ramsey, we've continued to see similar cases come up," lawyer Jonathan Feinberg said.
Mark McDonald, a spokesman for the Nutter administration, said it would have no comment on pending litigation.
Montgomery's lawsuit seeks damages for false arrest, malicious prosecution, and an illegal search and seizure. Now Web editor for the Temple News, Montgomery has used his iPhone to record officers only once in the year since his arrest.
"I would say I am a bit more wary of recording police," he said, "especially in a situation where there aren't witnesses."