LAFAYETTE — A Lafayette corrections officer illegally deleted a photo a suspect’s mother took on her cellphone, a lawsuit filed in federal court claims.
Chelline Carter’s minor son, Christopher Carter, was arrested in January for allegedly possessing marijuana intended for sale. Carter said she asked arresting officer Shannon Brasseaux to see the evidence and she complied. Brasseaux then allegedly asked Carter to help secure the teenager’s driver’s license which Carter did.
Once her son was restrained in the backseat of the patrol car, Carter took a picture of him with her Samsung cellphone, the suit says. She says Brasseaux took the phone and searched the contents before deleting the photo, warning Carter that by taking pictures she was breaking the law and “could be arrested for taking pictures of ‘evidence.’” Carter said at no time did she obstruct or interfere with the arrest during the ordeal.
“As long as a person is not interfering with police actions it is totally legal to film them,” William Quigley, law professor and director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University told the Louisiana Record. “Police do not have the authority to seize a cellphone from a bystander without a warrant.”
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Carter’s lawsuit was filed in Louisiana district court by her attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana. It said Brasseaux’s actions violated Carter’s First Amendment right to freely participate in legal activities and be protected from illegal searches, among others. Brasseaux did not have a warrant or Carter’s consent to search and delete the photo from her device.
“Pictures can be evidence,” Quigley said. “If police think the photo is important they can ask for it and people can comply or not as they choose. Sometimes [they] ask people to voluntarily turn over their cellphones so the photos or video can be deleted but a person has a constitutional right to refuse. They can get a warrant to view a cellphone if they show a judge they have legal reason to do so.”
Filed March 29, the lawsuit named Brasseaux, city-parish President Joel Robideaux and the city-parish of Lafayette as defendants. The suit aims to bar law enforcement from impeding the public’s right to take photos of police in public, to not threaten, search or seize their cellphones as a result, and to require warrants for all such devices and take steps to ensure compliance. Because laws already exist to prevent violation of illegal search and seizure, the next best step is enforcing more comprehensive strategies, Quigley said.
“The key to avoiding incidents like this is training, supervision and discipline of officers,” he said. “We know that not everyone who stands up for their rights wins, but we also know that nothing happens unless people do. This type of misconduct will hurt community trust in law enforcement if it goes unchecked. If the allegations prove true, I think Lafayette will change their policies and agree to settle.”