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updated: 1/16/2013 6:43 PM

ACLU: Philadelphia cops wrongly arrest videotapers

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Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Police in Philadelphia have recently shown a pattern of wrongfully arresting people who videotaped officers in public, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union was drawn up on behalf of a college student who was charged with disorderly conduct for using his cellphone to record police during a large altercation. His cellphone was later confiscated and the video erased, the lawsuit said.

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The complaint is the first of several that the Pennsylvania ACLU chapter plans to file alleging retaliatory behavior by officers, attorney Mary Catherine Roper said. It seeks monetary damages as well as confirmation of the public's right to videotape police, she said.

"It is not and, under our Constitution, could not be a crime," the lawsuit states.

A police spokeswoman declined to comment on pending litigation.

The complaint filed Wednesday involves Temple University photojournalism student Chris Montgomery, 24. Two years ago, he and a friend were downtown when they observed a dispute involving a group of teens.

Eventually, police responded and began arresting the youths, and Montgomery used his iPhone to document the action -- which included an officer calling one teen a derogatory name, the lawsuit said.

Police later approached Montgomery, told him to stop recording, took the phone, arrested him and detained him in a cell for about 45 minutes, the lawsuit said.

Montgomery was cited for disorderly conduct. When he was released, police returned his phone without the video, the suit said.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Montgomery said he initially fought the charge without a lawyer because he expected the judge to throw out the case.

"I thought it was pretty much straightforward, that it was pretty clear I had the right to do this," he said.

Yet he was convicted, fined and ordered to perform community service. Montgomery appealed, got a lawyer and was acquitted the next month. He later contacted the ACLU.

The lawsuit notes that Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey issued a memo in September 2011 -- several months after Montgomery's arrest -- instructing officers to allow themselves to be recorded in public.

The directive came just ahead of the Occupy movement's arrival in Philadelphia, when police ended up in frequent contact with protesters expressing civil disobedience and witnesses recording the ensuing arrests.

But the lawsuit notes two people were arrested for taking photos of a traffic stop about six months after the memo was issued. It also lists several examples of audio- or videotapers being cited before the directive went out.

Roper said the ACLU plans to file at least two more federal complaints in the near future.

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