Baltimore police rebuked by federal judge in taping lawsuit

A federal judge has ordered Baltimore police to halt a "veritable witch hunt" into the personal life of a man who alleges that his camera was seized as he filmed an arrest.

In a ruling unsealed Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Gauvey said the department must pay $1,000 for a "not so subtle attempt to intimidate the plaintiff" in a civil suit against the department.

She took issue with tactics employed against Christopher Sharp, who sued the department two years ago, alleging that officers deleted images from his phone after he recorded a female friend being beaten by officers at the 2010 Preakness Stakes.

The U.S. Justice Department has sided with Sharp, and the case has led to new department policies upholding the rights of citizens to record police.

But according to court records, the department continued to challenge Sharp's credibility in the civil case — contacting his ex-wife and former employers and seeking to determine "whether or not the plaintiff is a drug addict," according to a court filing by the department.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is helping to represent Sharp, and argued in court filings that the efforts were intimidation and harassment.

Gauvey agreed, saying that the police inquiries were "an appalling and apparent attempt to squeeze the plaintiff with questions that would almost certainly never be permitted in court."

In an unusual move, Gauvey ordered the payment and said the department's attorneys would have to seek court permission for further contact with anyone as they seek to gather information in the case.

City Solicitor George Nilson said he believed the requests for information on Sharp had been "benign" and "legitimate," but that the city is unlikely to fight the ruling.

He said the city will continue to dispute Sharp's allegations, saying that the plaintiff has been "utterly unable" to identify the officer who he alleges took his phone despite having been provided hundreds of names and pictures of police working that day.

"Tell us who it was," Nilson said.

In court filings, the Police Department's chief legal counsel, Mark Grimes, had argued that Sharp and his lawyers were trying to "handcuff the BPD in its pursuit of facts."

"In short, Mr. Sharp believes that the defendants are not entitled to a defense," Grimes wrote.

The ACLU's legal director, Deborah Jeon, welcomed the judge's ruling.

"We very much appreciate the court's recognition that overzealous and unprofessional litigation tactics such as those engaged in by BPD counsel here have no place in any case — let alone in a Maryland civil rights case," Jeon said in a statement.

Sharp alleges that images of the arrest, along with family photos, were erased from the phone by police.

The Justice Department's civil rights division has urged the court to find in Sharp's favor, saying that seizing and destroying recordings without a warrant violates constitutional guarantees of due process and protections against illegal searches.

After weighing in on the Baltimore incident, the Justice Department has sided with plaintiffs in similar cases.

Baltimore police dispute the ACLU's contention that what happened to Sharp is part of a pattern of abuse and contend that policy changes have been sufficient to guide officers on citizens' rights to record. Officials said other cities have contacted Baltimore for guidance in drafting their policies.

But Justice Department attorneys said Baltimore's policy changes did not go far enough.