WINTERVILLE — The question of whether people can live stream police activities on social media is at the center of a federal lawsuit against the Winterville Police Department.
A man who was involved in a traffic stop by the department filed a civil action lawsuit Nov. 3 after an officer reached in the vehicle and tried to take a phone he was using to document the incident on Facebook Live, according to the suit discussed at Monday’s meeting of the town council.
The suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Eastern Division by Dijon Sharpe names the Winterville Police Department and officers William Blake Ellis and Myers Parker Helms IV as defendants.
Town attorney Keen Lassiter briefed officials about the suit in closed session during the meeting. “The town is reviewing the civil action and is preparing its response,” Lassiter said, following closed session. The town must respond by Feb. 4.
Court action potentially could make law, Lassiter said.
Courts have ruled law enforcement officers may be video recorded at any time, but there has been no ruling regarding live streaming, Lassiter said.
“There are numerous safety issues on live streaming,” Lassiter said later. “Our officers didn’t do anything wrong — you can’t livestream.”
Sharpe a passenger in a car stopped by police on Oct. 9. The driver was charged with misdemeanor traffic violations, including driving without an operator’s license, failure to wear a seatbelt and failure to yield.
Upon returning to the vehicle to issue the citations or ticket, Helms approached the passenger side of the vehicle and asked Sharpe if he was using Facebook Live.
“It is hard to hear on the video, but Sharpe says, ‘yes,’” Lassiter said. “Helms reaches for the phone and Sharpe backs away. Helms then also backs away. The incident is one to two seconds long.”
The suit text offers the following account of the exchange: “Officer Helms … asks Mr. Sharpe, ‘What have we got? Facebook Live, cous(in)?’ Mr. Sharpe responds in the affirmative, at which point officer Helms abruptly reaches into the vehicle and attempts to grab Mr. Sharpe’s phone, and later pulls on both Mr. Sharpe’s seatbelt and Mr. Sharpe’s shirt in a further attempt to seize the phone. During this assault on Mr. Sharpe, officer Helms claims, ‘We ain’t gonna do Facebook Live because that’s an officer safety issue.’”
The suit states Sharpe was deprived of his First Amendment rights “to record police in the public performance of their duties and broadcast such recordings in real-time.”
Sharpe is requesting $1.
The suit said he seeks a ruling that it is a constitutional right to record police officers in public performance of their duties and broadcast such recording in real-time using platforms like Facebook Live and Twitter Periscope.
The civil action suit states, “Mr. Sharpe is a black male who records and broadcasts his interactions with law enforcement for his own protection, yet was physically attacked by officer Helms when Mr. Sharpe disclosed he was live streaming his interaction with the officer, and was then threatened with arrest by officer Blake (Ellis) if Mr. Sharpe attempted to broadcast such interactions again in the future.”
The civil action says that on Nov. 29, 2017, Sharpe was a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over by the Greenville Police Department. Sharpe was “forced” to exit the vehicle. He was tased, choked and severely beaten, his lawsuit indicates.
He was charged with two counts misdemeanor resisting a public officer and one count felony assault inflicting physical injury on a law enforcement officer.
All charges were later dismissed.
“Mr. Sharpe’s experience during the Greenville incident spurred him to become a civic activist promoting greater accountability for law enforcement,” the lawsuit said. “Mr. Sharpe also took precautions to ensure future interactions he had with law enforcement would be recorded for (his) protection.”
When he and the driver were pulled in Winterville in October 2018, Sharpe “waited for police to first approach the vehicle, the driver called an unidentified party on his mobile phone so the party was aware the vehicle had been pulled over by police,” the suit said.
At this time, Sharpe began streaming on his Facebook account, according to the suit.