More than two years after a Gresham transit officer grabbed hold of a police accountability advocate filming the aftermath of a man's arrest in downtown Portland—seizing her phone against her will and searching it for video—the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon has filed a complaint in federal court accusing that cop and three others of violating the woman's constitutional rights.
The 37-page complaint (pdf), filed Tuesday in US District Court, claims Gresham Officer Taylor Letsis—working under the command of the Portland Police Bureau as a member of TriMet's multi-agency Transit Police Division—forcefully grabbed the activist, Carrie Medina, in the middle of a live Internet broadcast on February 12, 2013, and snatched up her phone without any probable cause that she committed a crime or had captured evidence of a crime.
It says Medina had stayed at least 30 feet from the unfolding arrest, keeping out of officers' way. It also says she made clear to Letsis, when he approached her after seeing her phone, that she'd been on a bus and had only begun filming after the arrested man was in custody.
"Portland, Gresham, and TriMet failed to adequately train and supervise Officer Letsis and the other individual defendants before and during the incident," the complaint reads, "and maintained policies that allowed and condoned the acts and omissions of the police during the incident, and which showed deliberate indifference to the rights of Ms. Medina under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments."
The complaint appears to be the subject of a news conference announced outside ACLU headquarters at 2 pm tomorrow. The announcement for the presser said only that the ACLU had filed a suit today related to the filming of police officers. Officials at the ACLU weren't immediately available for comment. The Mercury obtained the complaint through a search of federal court records.
In demanding damages worth just several hundred dollars, plus attorney's fees, the complaint notes an email (pdf) sent by Gresham's police chief in March 2013 that discourages officers from seizing phones in similar circumstances—and all but prohibits them from searching them, in cases where it's not likely the evidence would be destroyed, without first seeking a warrant.
Local TV stations wrote about the incident a few days after it happened, quoting the Gresham Police Department's spokesman as saying Letsis' conduct was legal. The complaint says Letsis should have heeded Medina's protestations that she didn't witness the incident that led to the arrest and also that he should have accepted her officer to send him the video later via email.
The three other officers, all believed to be from Portland, weren't named. One of them, the complaint says, gave Letsis a look that persuaded him to let Medina's arm go. But all three were accused nonetheless of failing to intervene to stop the search of Medina's phone.
The complaint's centerpiece is a troubling transcript of Letsis' first conversation with Medina, who's remained a prominent livestreamer at protests and other events over the past two years and is a founding member of Film the Police, whose members head out most weekend nights taking video of police activity.
After Letsis grabbed the phone and interrupted Medina's stream, the complaint says, he was "poised" to press a button that would have deleted the footage he was trying to review instead of archiving it. If Medina hadn't spoken up and told him to do otherwise, it would have been Letsis and not Medina, ironically, responsible for the apparent destruction of evidence he was so concerned to avoid.
Letsis also briefly handed Medina the phone back, allowing her to make an archived copy of the video—something Letsis could have checked out at any point on his own phone or computer, the complaint notes. Letsis then grabbed the phone back and reviewed the video without Medina's permission for several seconds before threatening that he could take her phone any time he wanted again.
Although Transit officers are overseen by Portland police officials, and funded through TriMet, legal agreements between police agencies, as the Mercury has reported, leave discipline up to each officer's home department.