When it comes to a citizens’ right to document law enforcement activity in public, the Philadelphia Police Department just doesn’t seem to get it.
That’s according to the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights attorneys based in the city, who on Wednesday announced the filing of two additional lawsuits against the City of Philadelphia and its police agency over arrests in situations where passersby had observed police officers they thought to be acting out of line.
One case involves a Community College of Philadelphia professor named Alexine Fleck, who, in mid-June 2011, was walking to work when she noticed a city police officer standing over a semi-conscious man sitting on a stoop, according to the suit.
Fleck, concerned about the officer’s alleged aggressive manner, stopped to observe the interaction, and while she complied with the officer’s directive to step back a bit, she was nevertheless handcuffed and taken into custody after she refused to leave the area entirely.
Fleck was taken to the local police precinct, where she was booked on failure to disperse charges, although the charges were later dismissed in court.
“Observing police officers’ behavior in public is activity protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is not a crime,” reads the Fleck complaint, filed in federal court. “Nevertheless, Philadelphia police officers, due to serious deficits in the training, supervision, and discipline provided by the City of Philadelphia, have routinely punished civilians who observe or record police activity by filing false criminal charges against them.”
Fleck, in a statement provided by her attorneys, said: “I believe we are all responsible for the community we live in. I guess I paid for that believe by getting arrested, but I’d rather take my knocks than sit by and do nothing when I see something I think is wrong.”
The second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Coulter Loeb, who, on July 14, 2011, began to take photographs of a police officer speaking to two homeless individuals in the Rittenhouse Square section of Philadelphia.
Loeb, a photojournalism student at the time, claims he decided to document the encounter because of concerns over the way the officer was dealing with the homeless people.
When Loeb refused to “walk in the other direction,” and asserted that “I know my rights,” he was arrested for disorderly conduct, although the charges were later dropped, according to the ACLU of Pa.
The two lawsuits, filed at the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, follow a case filed back in January that represented what the ACLU calls the first in a series of civil actions arguing that Philadelphia police officers routinely manufacture criminal charges to retaliate against people who observe or record police activity, which is allowed under Pennsylvania law.
State courts have previously ruled that police officers can be videotaped and audio recorded doing their job because they have no expectation of privacy while performing their duties in public.
The Fleck complaint singles out in particular the case of Mark Fiorino, a Pennsylvania gun rights advocate who was threatened, but not charged, by a city cop for legally openly carrying his firearm in public.
Fiorino was later charged disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment, only after police officials discovered he had posted an audio recording of the encounter on the website Youtube.
Fiorino filed his own civil rights action against the city and the police department; he later accepted a settlement.
The Pennsylvania Record previously reported on Fiorino’s case.
The Fleck complaint says that Fiorino’s case is hardly unique, and that Philadelphia officers have often threatened with arrest those who watch or record police activity in public.
Both the Fleck and Loeb cases seek declaratory judgment that their civil rights were violated, in addition to compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and costs.
Both plaintiffs in the cases are being represented by Molly Tack-Hooper and Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorneys with the ACLU of Pa.; John Grogan and Peter Leckman, of the firm Langer, Grogan & Diver, P.C.; lawyers Jonathan Feinberg of the Philadelphia civil rights firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg; and attorney Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
The Fleck case number is 2:13-cv-03081-LDD.
The Loeb case number is 2:13-cv-03082-SD.