Police accidentally record themselves trumping up charges, lawsuit says

Technically Incorrect: In Connecticut, police confiscate a protester's camera, not realizing it was recording. Now, there's a lawsuit.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

When videos involving the police emerge, officers don't often come out well.

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A scene from the video the ACLU posted on YouTube.

ACLU/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

That's the problem with being in authority. It's like being a soccer goalkeeper. Make a mistake and the cost is severe.

With police officers, of course, it's more severe. Make a mistake and someone could end up dead.

The latest video being discussed involves police officers who appear to confiscate a camera belonging to Michael Picard.

The video, posted by the ACLU, appears to show Picard, 27, being confronted by a police officer, who claims it's illegal to take his picture.

The Supreme Court has ruled that this isn't so.

The officer maintains that he's not on public property, but on state property. This seems a creative distinction to make.

The action, according to the ACLU, took place on September 11 last year at a DUI checkpoint in Hartford, Connecticut. Picard was there with a sign that said "Cops Ahead: Keep Calm and Remain Silent."

Picard, according to a lawsuit that's now been filed, is known to the police as someone who stands at such checkpoints and warns drivers about them. He believes they're a waste of money.

He protests DUI checkpoints by trying to discover where they're going to be and posting about them on YouTube.

In this video, though, an officer identified as state trooper John Barone seems looks to have confiscated Picard's camera. He then seems to discuss what should be done with officers identified as sergeant John Jacobi and master sergeant Patrick Torneo.

They apparently don't know that the camera was still running. Their conversation was overheard.

"You want me to punch a number on this either way?" Barone can be heard saying in the video. "Gotta cover our ass."

What is then heard seems to be a discussion of what charges might be brought against Picard.

"So, we can hit him with reckless use of the highway by a pedestrian and creating a public disturbance, and whatever he said," says Jacobi.

Torneo adds: "And then we claim that, um, in backup, we had multiple people, um, they didn't want to stay and give us a statement, so we took our own course of action."

To the lay ear, this all sounds suspicious and precisely the sort of thing some citizens fear happens too often.

Which is why there's now a lawsuit.

Picard's lawyer, Joseph Sastre, is suing the troopers individually. The suit, filed on September 15, accuses them of interfering with Picard's First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Picard was ultimately charged with reckless use of highway by a pedestrian and creating a public disturbance. Both charges, the suit says, were later dropped.

Sastre told me he's sure the troopers will fight the lawsuit, "especially considering that, as state actors, they are entitled to a legal defense at the taxpayers' expense."

The Connecticut State Police didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Its union did, however, issue a statement that called the lawsuit "frivolous." It claimed Picard's video is "deceptively edited."

"Simply because charges were dropped against Mr. Picard does not mean he is innocent," it says.

The statement added: "While some use their free time to harass and provoke law enforcement officers who are trying to save lives by identifying drunk drivers, the men and women of the Connecticut State Police Union appreciate that the vast majority of people understand the dangerous work our troopers do to keep us all safe."

The lawsuit says that the police's initial pretext for confronting Picard was that someone had called in a complaint that a man was waving a gun around. Picard was in possession of a gun. The suit says that there was no such complaint called in that night.

The ACLU has joined Sastre in defending Picard.

It offered this statement from him: "As an advocate for free speech, I'm deeply disappointed that these police officers ignored my rights, particularly because two of the troopers involved were supervisors who should be setting an example for others."