The ACLU of New Jersey has filed a lawsuit (PDF) against the West New York Police Department on behalf of a man who was arrested in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech after filming police officers arresting two teenagers.

The ACLU-NJ is challenging Cesar Sanchez’s arrest on charges of obstructing the administration of law based on Sanchez’s filming of the police and his refusal to provide identification. The First Amendment allows people to film the police unobtrusively. The municipal prosecutor in West New York has already dropped the charges against Sanchez, having determined that no probable cause existed to justify the arrest.

“It’s a strange experience to expect to spend an evening at home after work and instead wind up in jail, all for doing something that the Constitution protects,” said Sanchez. “I’m filing this lawsuit so no one else in West New York has their freedom taken away for exercising their First Amendment right to film the police to begin with.”

When Sanchez, a West New York resident, saw police forcefully arresting two teenagers on his way home from work in July, he pointed his cellphone camera and hit record. The officers unlawfully ordered him to put away his phone. He initially demurred but complied when one of the officers approached him. However, when the police asked for identification, he opted to exercise his legal right to refuse. The police then arrested him, in retaliation for filming the scene lawfully and for declining to show his identification despite the police’s lack of justification to request it.

The lawsuit explains that West New York has a duty to create affirmative policies allowing filming of police and to properly train its officers that filming the police in public is a legal, constitutionally protected activity. Sanchez has asked in his filing for the town to take steps to proactively establish protections for people peacefully filming officers in public. Currently, West New York has no policies on its books affirming the right of people to film police.

“Cellphone cameras have become a common tool for holding police accountable, but unfortunately, the knowledge that it’s perfectly legal to film officers in public hasn’t spread as rapidly,” said ACLU-NJ attorney Rebecca Livengood, who represents Sanchez. “Officers already know that cellphone cameras have become the new normal, and now they need to accept that people have the right to use their devices to film police.”

Earlier this year, the ACLU of New Jersey released Mobile Justice, a smartphone application available on Apple and Android devices that allows users to record police interactions and send them to the ACLU to monitor for possible rights violations. The app also informs users of their rights when interacting with police.

“We the people may know our rights, but the police must uphold those rights for democracy to work,” said Livengood. “West New York needs to adopt a policy that promises the public that the police will respect our freedoms, even the ones – or especially the ones – that they would prefer we not exercise.”

In 2012, the ACLU-NJ won a successful settlement on behalf of Khaliah Fitchette, a Newark teenager who was held in a police car and arrested after filming police officers while she was riding a city bus.

The complaint is captioned Sanchez v. Town of West New York. Mobile Justice is available for free on Android and Apple iOS platforms.

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