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Datz v. Suffolk County (Defending First Amendment right to film police activity in public in Suffolk County)

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Datz was standing on a public street with several other bystanders filming the aftermath of a police chase when Suffolk County Sergeant Michael Milton approached him and demanded that he leave the scene. Sergeant Milton later arrested Datz, who had moved a block further away although no police lines had been established. Additionally he had not crossed any police lines, had prominently displayed his press credentials, and had not interfered with the police in any manner. Datz was handcuffed, taken into custody and charged with misdemeanor obstruction of governmental administration. Police also seized his video camera and tape recording of the incident. Following his release and the return of his equipment and tape, Datz posted video of the encounter on YouTube.

The Suffolk County District Attorney dropped the charge on Aug. 9, 2011. The lawsuit maintained that Sergeant Milton’s actions violated Datz’s rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the New York State Constitution. Sergeant Milton and Suffolk County were named as defendants. It alleged false arrest, assault and battery, violation of civil rights, inadequate training, supervision and discipline of officers who interfere with the constitutional right to record police activity in public, and violation of the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 relating to the seizure of Datz’s camera and tape. Datz sought an injunction ordering Suffolk County to develop and implement a comprehensive and effective policy to protect the First Amendment right of the public and press to observe and record police activity in public, including appropriate training and procedures to test the effectiveness of that policy on the ground and to discipline appropriately those who breach it. He also sought an award of compensatory damages for the physical, psychological and professional damages that he suffered as a result of his unlawful arrest; an award of punitive damages; and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

On June 8, 2014, the NYCLU announced a settlement approved by Suffolk County Legislature. The settlement required the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) to pay Datz $200,000 and create a Police-Media Relations Committee to address problems between the press and the police department. The SCPD also revised its rules and procedures to instruct officers that “members of the media cannot be restricted from entering and/or producing recorded media from areas that are open to the public regardless of subject matter.” Under the settlement, the Police-Media Relations Committee is charged with promoting better relations between press and the police and addressing complaints regarding police-media relations. Its membership will include a commanding officer in the SCPD, the executive officer of the SCPD’s Public Information Bureau, and members of local print and broadcast media outlets, as well as a freelance videographer or photographer. The agreement was approved by Judge Leonard Wexler in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District. 

E.D.NY, Index No. 12-CV-1770 (direct) 

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