March 28, 2011
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Khaliah Fitchette hugs her mother Kameelah Phillips at their home in Newark

NEWARK, N.J. — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and the Seton Hall Law School Center for Social Justice (CSJ) filed a lawsuit today against the Newark Police Department for illegally handcuffing and detaining a Newark high school honors student who captured video footage on her cellphone of officers responding to an incident on a New Jersey Transit bus.

The lawsuit (1674k PDF), alleges officers violated the constitutional rights of Khaliah Fitchette, 17, by arresting her, seizing her cellphone, and deleting the video footage. The search and seizure was illegal and violated the student’s right to free speech.

“Individuals at the highest levels of the Newark Police Department have continued to turn a blind eye to repeated, pervasive unlawful behavior by its officers,” said Seton Hall Law Professor Baher Azmy, who is representing Fitchette as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ, and has brought cases against the Newark Police Department in the past. “The abuse of the rights of Newark citizens will continue, unless the Newark Police Department finally confronts and implements serious reforms among its officers.”

Fitchette, an honors student and at the time, junior class president at University High School in Newark, was riding downtown from school on the afternoon of March 22, 2010. Soon after boarding the bus, the driver called Newark Police to attend to a man who had fallen on the floor several rows in front of Fitchette. When Newark Police Officers Noemi Maloon and Lloyd Thomas boarded the bus, Fitchette started to record the scene using the video capability of her cellphone. Fitchette was standing approximately 10 feet away and was not obstructing or interfering with police activity.

Maloon spotted Fitchette recording the scene and demanded she turn her phone off. Fitchette refused because she needed the phone on in case her mother needed to reach her. The officer then grabbed Fitchette by the arm and pulled her off the bus. During this seizure, Maloon stated, “Kids think they can do whatever they want.” She also stated that she didn’t want any footage of this public incident to go on the Internet.

Fitchette said she was startled by what was going on and asked if she was being arrested.

“I was confused by what was going on,” Fitchette said. “The police were treating me like a criminal even though I had done nothing but take a video of a man on the bus.”

The officers handcuffed Fitchette and put her in a patrol car. Officer Thomas seized Fitchette’s cellphone and deleted the video. Violating state law, the officers ignored Fitchette’s repeated pleas to call her mother. Instead, they drove her to a juvenile processing center then to an adult processing center, in order to charge her with a crime, even though she was a juvenile and they had no lawful basis to charge her. After the officers finally acknowledged they could not continue their prolonged detention, they dropped off a crying Fitchette at her mother’s workplace.

“I was scared,” said Fitchette. ”Because I was a junior and I was about to apply to college and I didn’t want a criminal record that I didn’t even deserve, to hold me back from applying.”

Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, said incidents like this erode the public’s trust in the department. In September, the ACLU-NJ filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Justice, asking it to intervene and monitor the troubled department.

“This is another example of egregious misconduct by the Newark Police Department,” Jacobs said. “We have already filed a petition documenting 418 incidents of beatings, false arrests, retaliation and other misconduct by Newark Police. This case is another reason why we desperately need federal intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice.”

The ACLU has challenged illegal police confiscations of cameras, a problem growing more prevalent across the country, including in New Jersey. In 2008, the ACLU-NJ and the CSJ represented Roberto Lima, editor of the Brazilian Voice newspaper, who had been arrested and held in custody by Newark police officers until he relinquished photos of a dead body in an alley taken by his publication. The ACLU-NJ also supported a CBS news camera man who was taken into custody for taking video of an anti-violence rally.

Counsel for Fitchette includes Seton Hall Law School students Dan Bause, William Conaboy, Mark Keogh and Doug Nelson.

Fitchette’s case is captioned Phillips v. City of Newark.

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