If cops are going to do something shady, something as unethical and illegal as violating a citizen’s First Amendment rights to free speech and his Fourth Amendment rights against warrantless seizure, then they definitely don’t want their actions being recorded. Yet that is exactly what happened when Connecticut State Police troopers seized a camera belonging to a protestor and the camera continued to film while they conspired on which bogus charges to level against him.
In September 2015, Michael Picard was protesting near a DUI checkpoint in West Hartford by holding up a big handwritten sign that read “Cops Ahead: Keep Calm and Remain Silent.” Picard, who was lawfully carrying a handgun, also had a camera that he was using to film the police—public employees on a public street.
According to the ACLU complaint (pdf), one of the three state troopers working the checkpoint approached Picard and “swatted” the digital camera out of his hand.
Trooper First Class John Barone can be heard on the video saying, “It's illegal to take my picture.”
Picard said, “No, it isn't.”
Yet Barone insisted, “It's illegal to take my picture. Personally, it is illegal.” He snatched the camera and took it over to two fellow officers before placing it on the police cruiser. He also seized Picard’s handgun and the handgun permit from Picard’s pocket.
In what ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley called “an unlikely stroke of cosmic karma,” the camera was still recording while the officers debated on which trumped-up charges they could throw at Picard.
While they were plotting, and accidentally allowing the conversation to be captured on film, one of the troopers suggested calling a Hartford police officer to see if the cop had an “grudges” against Picard. Picard’s gun permit had come back as valid, and one of the cops talked about needing to “punch a number on this guy” before adding, we really “gotta cover our ass.”
In the end they decide on two criminal infractions: “reckless use of a highway by a pedestrian,” and “creating a public disturbance.” They have a chilling discussion on how to support the public disturbance charge, and the top-level supervisor explains to the other two, “what we say is that multiple motorists stopped to complain about a guy waving a gun around, but none of them wanted to stop and make a statement.” In other words, what sounds like a fairy tale.
It took nearly a year, but the criminal charges against Picard were dismissed in court.
ACLU-CT Legal Director Dan Barrett said, “As the video shows, these police officers were more concerned with thwarting Mr. Picard’s free speech and covering their tracks than upholding the law.” Even though the cops were recorded during their conversation, Barret said, “a year later, there has been zero movement on the internal affairs investigation as far as anyone knows, which just shows that police and prosecutors in Connecticut should not be in charge of policing themselves.”
The ACLU is helping to represent Picard, claiming the cops violated Picard’s right to record public officials working on a public street, violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and violated his Fourth Amendment rights by seizing the camera without probable cause or a warrant.
Picard issued the following statement:
Community members like me have a right to film government officials doing their jobs in public, and we should be able to protest without fearing political retribution from law enforcement. As an advocate for free speech, I’m deeply disappointed that these police officers ignored my rights, particularly because two of the troopers involved were supervisors who should be setting an example for others.
A State Police Union spokesperson claimed the lawsuit was “frivolous” and the video had been “deceptively edited.” Although the charges against Picard have been dismissed in court, the union said that “does not mean he is innocent.”