Federal Court Rebukes Baltimore Police Lawyers for "Veritable Witch Hunt"

March 8, 2013

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 

March 8, 2013

 

CONTACT: Meredith Curtis, ACLU of Maryland, 410-889-8555, media@aclu-md.org

 

BALTIMORE - A federal judge has sharply rebuked lawyers for the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) for conducting a "veritable witch hunt" against Christopher Sharp, a man whose personal videos, including many of his young son, were deleted after he filmed BPD officers forcibly arresting a female friend at the 2010 Preakness.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, which represents Mr. Sharp in the case, has also condemned the Police Department's extreme tactics in the case.  

 

In 2012, the ACLU filed a motion to quash a series of broad and intrusive subpoenas issued (or intended to be issued) by the BPD seeking personal information irrelevant to the 2010 incident, including Mr. Sharp's medical records from years earlier, past employment records, and cell phone records for months after the incident. The ACLU condemned this "discovery" as a transparent effort by BPD lawyers intended to intimidate a citizen, seeking to coerce him into dropping a valid case by conducting a wholly inappropriate fishing expedition into the citizen's personal life. Mr. Sharp's important First Amendment case against the BPD has already spurred the U.S. Department of Justice to file a first-ever legal statement by the federal government strongly supporting the First Amendment right to record police actions in public.

 

Last Friday, United States Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey issued a ruling quashing nearly all of the BPD's subpoenas. Judge Gauvey held that "these discovery requests ... have inappropriately intruded into [Mr.] Sharp's personal life to root around for information that bears no relation to the issues in this case." The ruling was initially issued under seal, but was released to the public today.

 

In her decision, Judge Gauvey called the conduct of BPD's counsel "appalling." The police counsel inquiries amounted to nothing more than an attempt "to squeeze the plaintiff with questions that would almost certainly never be permitted in court," the Court ruled. Due to these abuses, the court sanctioned BPD lawyers $1,000.  Additionally, Judge Gauvey said that BPD would be required to seek "leave" of the Court before initiating any further contacts with Sharp's family and friends, including his ex-wife, her mother, or her boyfriend. Police lawyers had contended that their contacts with individuals were entirely proper, despite the discomfort they generated.

 

The Court expressed concern that BPD lawyers' deposition tactics suggested that even otherwise proper witness contacts could be problematic if conducted in such an overzealous and inappropriate manner. Quoting arguments made by Sharp's counsel, Judge Gauvey continued:

 

"The Court agrees that ‘defendants' discovery abuse is particularly egregious given the enormous power that police defendants wield over citizens, and their enhanced ability to track information about citizens."

 

"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," said ACLU Legal Director Deborah Jeon, one of the lawyers in the case. "We can only hope that this striking rebuke from a federal judge will make the City think twice before engaging in such abuses in the future - against Chris Sharp or any other plaintiff who simply tries to stand up for his rights against the government."

 

Said Chris Sharp: "At the outset, the only thing I wanted was an apology from the police for deleting the videos I lost of my son and me together. It was the Police Department's refusal to admit it was wrong that made me take this to Court, and the Department's lawyers have done everything they could to make that process more difficult. I feel encouraged that the court recognized the harassment and humiliation I've had to endure twice now from the police. And I'm hopeful that with the new Police Commissioner, both sides will be able to sit down together and reach a positive resolution to this case."

 

Christopher Sharp is represented by attorneys Richard Simpson, Mary Borja, Craig Smith and Benjamin Kohr from Wiley Rein LLP, in Washington, D.C., and by Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.

 

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