MANHATTAN (CN) — The morning after new viral footage of a police killing sparked national headlines, a Queens man sued the New York City Police Department for arresting people who have been putting officers under scrutiny across the nation.
Ruben An, 24, works for the Asian-American advocacy group CAAV and belongs to he activist network Cop Watch, which monitors police forces throughout the United States and Canada.
In a federal complaint Wednesday, An says he learned the hard way about the NYPD’s propensity to violate the First Amendment rights of people to film the police.
The 18-page document, which is not yet publicly available from the court but which attorneys at the Legal Aid Society has made available, describes a mundane police encounter An recorded on the early evening of July 28, 2014.
Though unremarkable itself, the timing has significance.
In another borough the week before, a white officer had killed Eric Garner, a black 43-year-old, in a chokehold that NYPD officers have been banned from employing since 1993.
The New York Daily News would not publish wrenching footage of Garner’s death until a year later.
By August 2014, meanwhile, footage of Michael Brown’s killing at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, helped spawn the Black Lives Matter movement.
It is difficult to tell what, if any, police misconduct An believed he was documenting on July 28.
The Flushing resident taped three NYPD officers questioning a man who had by lying next to a telephone booth on the corner of East Eighth and Lafayette streets in Lower Manhattan.
But, An says, the NYPD showed that they did not understand his right to record it.
Two exhibits filed with the lawsuit — An’s cellphone footage and a nearby building’s surveillance video — fill in the details beyond the cold record.
In the surveillance footage, the viewer can see three police officers approach a man lying next to a telephone booth.
One of officers, identified in the complaint as Bekim Becaj, can be seen in An’s footage as warning the cameraman about standing “in the proximity of a police investigation.”
Repeatedly saying “step away,” Becaj asserts that An is blocking the sidewalk.
“Officer, I am not blocking the sidewalk,” the cameraman can be heard responding.
“All right,” the officer responds. “I’ll wait until people come by, and then, you’ll get issued a summons for disorderly conduct.”
“OK, I have the right to document police activity, sir,” An persists.
The crosstalk continues until Becaj approaches An to demand that he put down his cellphone and produce identification.
“When Mr. An did not put his cellphone down and stop recording, Officer Becaj grabbed Mr. An, twisted Mr. An’s arm behind his back, and forcefully pushed him against the building wall,” the complaint notes.
Held for roughly 15 hours, An had to wait nearly a year before facing a jury that declared him not guilty on July 9, according to his complaint.
For more than 11 months, An says, his prolonged prosecution put a crimp in his police-filming habits.
“Chastened, worried, and deterred by the city’s response, Mr. An did not record any police interactions for several months after his arrest and recorded only rarely until the conclusion of his trial, which has resulted in acquittal on all charges,” the complaint states.
Without court intervention, An says, police are likely to arrest him again because he does not intend to slow down on prolific filming of the NYPD.
“Since the conclusion of the trial, Mr. An has gradually resumed filming public police activity, usually at least two times per month, but less frequently than previously because he fears future pretextual arrests and prosecution as a result of his recording of police officers,” the complaint states.
Despite identifying the arresting officer, An only names New York City as a defendant, and he demands an injunction protecting his First Amendment right to record the police.
An says he does not intend to stop his filming in the meanwhile.
“In spite of these concerns, and the anxiety he experiences while filming, Mr. An does continue to record police activity and will continue to do so going forward, as he believes that recording police officers and distributing his videos personally or via social media platforms to other members of the community is essential to ensuring that NYPD officers are held accountable for their conduct, and useful in educating the public about police misconduct,” the complaint states.
Joshua Carrin, An’s lead attorney from the Legal Aid Society, told reporters at a brief press conference that his client wants a binding precedent rather than money.
“The importance of the right to hold police accountable by recording their public activity cannot be overstated, and in order to ensure that the court decides this critical First Amendment issue, Mr. An is foregoing any claim for damages,” the attorney said.
Three appellate circuits — the First, Seventh and 11th — have affirmed the right to record police, and Carrin said that he hopes this case will add the Manhattan-based Second Circuit to the list.
The New York City Law Department and NYPD said they will review the complaint.
An’s lawyers would not let their pro-transparency client speak at the conference, but one of the lawyers — Bill Silverman of Proskauer Rose — described An’s “long history of recording the police” as a “pure expression of his First Amendment rights to record what’s going on in a public place.”
From Ferguson to New York to Washington, police departments have buckled down against an age of handheld scrutiny. A Pew survey from last year found that 92 percent of U.S. citizens own a cellphone and 68 percent own a smartphone, the lawsuit notes.
FBI director James Comey have joined local police departments in claiming — without evidence — that a “viral video effect” has made authorities shy away from making legitimate arrests. The White House has pushed back against this narrative as unsupported.
Hours before An filed suit, the Justice Department announced the opening of an investigation into a police killing captured in newly viral cellphone footage.
The video depicts two Baton Rouge police officers pinning down Alton Sterling, a black 37-year-old, on July 5 and shooting him as he lay on the ground.
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