Case Summary and Outcome
Montgomery County settled a First Amendment lawsuit brought by photojournalist Mannie Garcia in which he claimed his rights were violated when police officers arrested, detained and prosecuted him for attempting to record what he believed was a display of excessive force by the police.
Despite the County’s denials of Garcia’s allegations, its police department updated its policies after the incident to specifically note that the public has a right to record and photograph police officers.
The case also attracted national attention as the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a Statement of Interest in the action urging the federal court not to dismiss Garcia’s case after Montgomery County filed a motion to do so. In its Statement the DOJ wrote: “The United States is concerned that discretionary charges, such as disorderly conduct, loitering, disturbing the peace, and resisting arrest, are all too easily used to curtail expressive conduct or retaliate against individuals for exercising their First Amendment rights….Core First Amendment conduct, such as recording a police officer performing duties on a public street, cannot be the sole basis for such charges”.
Mannie Garcia, the Plaintiff in this case, was leaving a restaurant in Montgomery County in June 2011 when he observed the police arresting two Hispanic men in what he believed was a display of excessive force. He started to film the incident and was approached by one of the officers. He stated that he was a member of the press as he is employed as a photographer. However, he was placed under arrest by the officer and taken to jail (after the officer allegedly put him in a choke hold).
Garcia was charged with disorderly conduct but was found not guilty, and thereafter brought an action against the County and individual police officers for violation of his civil rights.
After the complaint was filed, Montgomery County moved to dismiss, arguing failure to state a cause of action, governmental immunity and others. The “DOJ” filed a statement of interest arguing against dismissal. In their statement the DOJ expressed concern that discretionary charges such as disorderly conduct “are too easily used to curtail expressive conduct or retaliate against individuals for exercising their First Amendment Rights.” Pg. 1. Further, the DOJ urged the Court to find that individuals are protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendment if they are peacefully filming the police in public.
On November 5, 2015 U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang allowed the the defendants’ Motion to Dismiss on a limited number of counts only and similarly granted Garcia Partial Summary Judgment on just a few of the counts sought in his Cross Motion.
The case was settled out of Court for $45,000 on March 8 2017. The Court is currently deciding how much to award Garcia attorney’s fees and costs.
The Complaint alleged violations of the Plaintiff’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, a claim for First Amendment retaliation, claims for violation of his rights under the Privacy Protection Act 1980, false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, battery and others. In addition to seeking damages, the complaint sought relief in the form of injunctive relief barring the police from interfering with the First Amendment rights of the press and directing the County to develop policies to ensure the First Amendment rights of individuals are protected by the police.
Although this case settled without a Court ruling it remains an important precedent in the realm of freedom of speech. Further, the settlement shaped policy in Montgomery County as the police department adopted new policies protecting individuals’ First Amendment Rights and the DOJ made it clear that national policy supports upholding the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of those that peacefully film the police.