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Connecticut cops violate First Amendment, punish photographer for using drone to document accident scene

Sunday, March 23, 2014 by: Ethan A. Huff, staff writer
Tags: First Amendment, photography drone, Connecticut

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(NaturalNews) A local news reporter from Hartford, Connecticut, has filed a lawsuit against the Hartford Police Department (HPD) for allegedly violating his free speech rights following a recent vehicle accident. Courthouse News Service (CNS) reports that Pedro Rivera was interrogated by officers and later punished by his employer for flying a small, remote-controlled aircraft 150 feet above the scene of the accident, even though he was within his rights to do so.

The editor for local television news affiliate WFSB, Rivera is also a photographer and frequently flies what some might say is a photography "drone" designed to capture all the action when, where and as it takes place. In this case, Rivera picked up on a fatal car accident that occurred nearby from listening in on a police scanner, prompting him to launch his craft and capture the activity of police officers as they investigated the scene.

But the officers in question reportedly became hostile when they realized what Rivera was doing, and they proceeded to surround and question him on the street about why he was there. According to the lawsuit, the defendants demanded that Rivera surrender his identification card or driver's license, which is illegal unless they have reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a crime had been committed, and illegally detained him for several minutes.

"[Police Sergeant Edward Yergeau] and other uniformed officers of the Hartford Police Department surrounded the plaintiff, demanded his identification card, and asked him questions about what he was doing," reads the lawsuit. "The plaintiff did not feel as though he were free to leave during the course of this questioning."

Using small aircraft to monitor law enforcement activities is not a crime

Rivera insists that his flying of the small drone high up above the accident scene was unobtrusive, constituting legal behavior that is fully protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But HPD obviously disagrees, as Lieutenant Brian Foley from the department, one of two officers specifically named in the suit, allegedly contacted WFSB following the incident to file a false complaint against Rivera.

"Defendant Foley complained that the plaintiff had interfered with the police department's investigation of the accident, and had compromised the crime scene's 'integrity,'" explains the suit. "Upon information and belief, defendant Foley either requested that discipline be imposed upon the plaintiff by his employer, or suggested that the employer could maintain its goodwill with the [department] by disciplining the plaintiff."

These and other outrageous bullying tactics, not to mention the fact that HPD officers illegally detained Rivera, are named in the suit as blatant civil rights violations by HPD. Rivera says he was not acting as an employee of WFSB when he launched the drone on February 1, a point he made known to the officers in question, and did not violate any state or federal law by operating a "civil aircraft."

"Private citizens do not need local, state or federal approval to operate a remote-controlled aircraft," wrote Norman Pattis, Rivera's attorney, as part of the suit.

Beyond this, HPD officer Lt. Foley "intended to chill, and did chill" Rivera's employer by calling and essentially blackmailing the station into suspending Rivera for exercising his rights. According to the suit, which is seeking declaratory relief, an injunction, and compensatory and punitive damages for civil rights violations, HPD acted in such a way as to deliberately conceal its activities from public scrutiny.

"Defendant Foley was inspired by improper motive," adds the suit, "to wit, to prevent the public at large [from having] video reports of what police officers do in the investigation of a crime."

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