Federal Judge Allows Plaintiff to Sue Officers After He Was Detained for Videoing a Police Station
An Austin federal judge has ruled that an amateur photographer can pursue a civil rights case against four police officers after they detained and handcuffed him for filming the Round Rock Police Department building.
The background to the recent decision in Turner v. City of Round Rock is as follows. Phillip Turner sued the officers and the City of Round Rock in a U.S. District Court last year under U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the defendants deprived him of his rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Turner is a student and part-time employee whose hobbies include photography and filming police for public viewing on his website.
Turner alleges in his suit that he was approached by an officer in 2014 while he was filming the front of the Round Rock police department and the activity outside the building. He was not armed and was only carrying a video camera.
Turner told officers he was taking pictures of the building. He also refused to show the police his identification. After the officers insisted he identify himself, Turner asked officers if taking pictures of a public building was illegal. They told him it was not.
When Turner asked if he was free to go, the officers told him he was not. Turner replied that he would identify himself if the officers were accusing him of a crime. The officer then grabbed Turner's arm and handcuffed him. Three other officers later arrived and continued to question him while in handcuffs until he provided his name and date of birth. He was later released.
After Turner filed his suit against the defendants, both the officers and the City of Round Rock filed separate motions to dismiss the claims.
In his May 26 ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman refused to dismiss a majority of claims filed against the officers who alleged they had qualified governmental immunity from Turner's First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims.
Pitman concluded that Turner had sufficiently plead that his Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights had been violated by the detention. He noted that the Fourth Amendment accommodates the temporary detention of a person as long as they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
"However, defendants never articulate what sort of 'criminal activity' they reasonably suspected," Pitman wrote. "The officers' argument is circular—they suspected Turner of being suspicious; he confirmed their suspicion by behaving suspiciously."
Pitman also ruled that Turner had sufficiently pled that his First Amendment rights had been violated after officers detained him after photographing the police building. Noting that the U.S. Fifth Circuit has not yet considered whether citizens have a right to film police officers, he ruled that Turner established that it was a violation of his free speech rights to be detained for photographing the police.
"The court finds that the right to film or photograph police in public, without interfering with police business and subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, is clearly established," Pitman wrote.
Pitman has yet to rule on the City of Round Rock's motion to dismiss Turner's claims.
Kervyn Altaffer, a partner in Dallas' Altaffer & Chen who represents Turner, said the ruling made it clear that the police detained his client for something that isn't against the law.