TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – A filmmaker who was harassed and interfered with by police while making a documentary about gangs in the New Jersey state capital will have his civil rights claim heard, after a state appeals panel reversed an earlier dismissal of the case.
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Documentarian Kelly Ramos filed his lawsuit in 2008 claiming that while filming a project about the emergence of the “Sex Murder Money” Bloods sect in Trenton, he had five interactions with the Trenton police where his civil rights were violated.
In his complaint, Ramos said the first incident involved him being arrested and charged with obstructing traffic while filming out of his car. Another time, Trenton police officers told him to turn his camera off while he was filming on a public sidewalk, and on a third occasion, he was pulled over and received a citation for “improper parking” when officers noticed he was filming in his car.
The other two incidents involve Herbert Flowers, an officer in the police department. Ramos claimed that while he was filming a barbeque that was being shut down by the police, Flowers approached him and told him that “something would happen to him” if he did not stop filming and that he was going to investigate his so-called documentary.
A few days later, Ramos said Flowers told him he was “interfering with a police investigation” while filming a gang meeting outside of a library and ultimately confiscated his camera. Ramos said Flowers told him “if I see you again, I am locking you up and I don’t care what for.”
The filmmaker said all the citations he received but one were later dismissed.
In April 2011, a Motion Judge in Mercer County, N.J. dismissed the case, holding that Flowers should be granted qualified immunity because “there was no well-established right to videotape police at the time of the incidents.”
The judge also noted that Ramos’ guilty plea following his arrest during filming “demonstrated his acknowledgement of probable cause for his arrest.”
But a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, disagreed, finding that “a documentary about a subject of public interest, such as urban gangs, is a form of investigative journalism, and the process of preparing such a documentary is a form of news gathering.”
The reversal also noted that “a reasonable police officer in 2006 could not have believed he had the absolute right to preclude Ramos from videotaping any gang activities or any interaction of the police with gang members for the purposes of making a documentary film on that topic.”
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