Class Action Lawsuit Challenges D.C. Police Department’s Unlawful Practice Of Retaining Protestors’ Cell Phones For Months

Over a Year Later, Some Protestors’ Phones Still Haven’t Been Returned 

Contact: media@acludc.org, gregg_kelley@washlaw.org

WASHINGTON —  Today two protestors and three volunteer medics filed a lawsuit against the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department for its unconstitutional retention of their cell phones and other personal property for months after they were seized during police reform and racial justice demonstrations two summers ago, even though no charges were filed against any of the individuals. More than a year after the protest, MPD continues to hold the phones of three of the plaintiffs along with those of over 30 other individuals whom the plaintiffs seek to represent in a class action. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, ACLU of the District of Columbia, the Law Office of Jeffrey L. Light, and pro bono counsel Tara Reinhart, Julia York, Daniel Blauser, Joe Sandman, and Annamaria Kimball, represent protestors Destiny Robinson and Alexander Cameron, who were protesting the night of August 13, 2020, in Adams Morgan, and Benjamin Tan, Jonah Angeles, and Jake Oster, who were volunteering as standby medics that night.

Around 10:45 PM, D.C. police officers charged towards demonstrators, then kettled them near the intersection of 18th and Willard Streets. All were arrested, and their cell phones were confiscated. Less than 24 hours later, everyone from that kettle was released and no charges were filed. However, their cell phones were not returned. Robinson, Cameron, Tan, Angeles, and Oster all tried for months to get their property back. Cameron’s phone was returned 285 days after it was seized; Tan’s was returned 312 days after it was seized. MPD still has possession of Robinson, Oster, and Angeles’ phones.

“The way MPD treated me was invasive and uncomfortable” said Alexander Cameron, a protester and one of the plaintiffs in the case. “On top of that I had to tell my friends and family that, even though I was not charged with a crime, all of our personal messages and photos were probably available to and being viewed by the police.”

The lawsuit asserts MPD’s practice of keeping cell phones has been ongoing for years. The complaint details how individuals’ phones that were seized and never returned after protesting the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump, and how photojournalist and ACLU-DC client Oyoma Asinor’s phone and camera were seized during a civil rights protest last summer and held for nearly a year. (The ACLU-DC represents Mr. Asinor in a separate lawsuit.) The lawsuit also seeks class certification to represent dozens of others who were kettled and arrested at 18th and Williard Streets the night of August 13 or early morning August 14, and whose phones were confiscated and held for an extended period.

“D.C.’s unconstitutional phone-retention practice applies to individuals arrested in all kinds of circumstances,” said Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder, Deputy Legal Director, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “On top of the significant expense of replacing their phones, people can lose work if they rely on their phone for business and they can lose critical personal or professional data.”

“For years, MPD has been seizing cell phones from people arrested, especially at protests, and refusing to give them back for months or years after the government’s interest in holding the property has ended,” said Scott Michelman, Legal Director, ACLU of the District of Columbia. “People shouldn’t have to risk losing their personal property just to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

“The government’s delays in returning phones are inexplicable,” said attorney Jeffrey Light. “If the government gets a warrant – which D.C. policy says is supposed to happen within 48 hours – the police have the technology to search phones and download information within an hour. If the government doesn’t seek a warrant or its application is denied, then the phone should be returned quickly to the owner.”

“The Fourth Amendment prohibits not just seizures that are unjustified from the start but also seizures that are unreasonably prolonged,” said pro bono counsel Tara Reinhart. “When the government’s reason for holding a phone no longer applies, the government needs to give it back, and due process means that owner needs to have a usable process to get that phone back.”

Today’s lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and seeks a court order that the government must return still-retained phones to plaintiffs and class members and cease its unlawful practices. The lawsuit also seeks damages for the class in an amount to be determined by a jury. The lawsuit charges that MPD violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizures, Fifth Amendment due process rights, and D.C. common law.

More information about the case, Cameron v. District of Columbia, can be found here.

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