Maine Couple Sues Portland Police after Arrest for Cell Phone Recording
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Bar Harbor couple arrested in Portland last May after using a cell phone to record a police stop involving several officers. In their lawsuit against Sgt. Benjamin Noyes, Jr., the couple allege that the arrest violated their right to free speech, which includes the right to observe, photograph and record the police performing their work in public.
It happened around midnight on May 24. Jill Walker of Bar Harbor says she and her boyfriend, Sabatino Scattoloni, had just had a pizza in the Old Port and were on their way back to their hotel room when they saw a police stop involving five officers and a single person sitting in a car.
"And it just seemed to me from across the street that it was a lot of police officers for one person," Walker says. "It was a woman in the vehicle and we had decided to record from our cell phone, just for the sake of being a witness to what was going on."
Walker says it became clear that the officers were putting the woman through a battery of field sobriety tests. After several minutes, Walker says an officer crossed the street and asked them if they knew the woman. They said no, and continued observing the traffic stop.
Walker says they watched without interfering and eventually moved in for a closer look. She says at this point they'd stopped recording video. "We were back several feet, we were probably somewhere around 20 feet away. We weren't saying anything. We weren't even talking to each other."
Walker says a second police officer asked them again if they knew the woman. And again they said no. But that's when Walker says officer Benjamin Noyes, Jr. angrily approached them and ordered them to get off the street in two seconds or they would be arrested.
"And we were shocked 'cause we weren't doing anything," she says. "And I said, 'Why?' and Tino said, 'But, we're just standing here.' And the next thing you know, we're being handcuffed and it all happened. It was very surreal."
According to their lawsuit, Sgt. Noyes ordered two other officers to arrest Walker and Scattoloni, who were not given Miranda warnings and who were taken by separate squad cars to the Cumberland County Jail, where they were booked, searched, fingerprinted and interrogated. They were released a couple of hours later after each paying $60 bail.
Both were charged with "Obstructing Government Administration," a charge which carries a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail, and which the Cumberland County District Attorney declined to prosecute.
"For the rest of their lives, my clients are going to have to answer 'Yes' whenever they're asked on an official form if they've ever been arrested, and that's just not fair. They did nothing wrong here," says Zach Heiden, an attorney with the ACLU of Maine.
Heiden says his clients are hoping to receive unspecified compensation for their injuries, including attorneys fees. "But more than that," Heiden says, "they're really hoping to send a message that this sort of thing is not acceptable anywhere in the state of Maine."
Heiden says with so many people able to record video and audio on their cell phones now, he expects an increase in similar situations involving police.
In response to the lawsuit, the city of Portland and the Portland Police Department released a written statement, saying the allegations are being taken seriously. An internal investigation into the pair's arrest has been underway since July. But the department will not comment further.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Noyes, who is a 17-year veteran of the police force, continues to serve in an on-duty capacity. Jill Walker says she hopes to never run into him again.