HARTFORD (CN) - In a bizarre twist to a civil rights issue, a news photographer claims in a federal lawsuit that Hartford police wrongfully arrested him for using a drone to photograph a fatal car accident - at an elevation of 150 feet, far too high to interfere with police, as officers claimed.
Pedro Rivera, a photographer and editor for a local television news station, claims he was not breaking any laws or hindering emergency operations by recording police activity after a Feb. 1 fatal car accident.
"On February 1, 2014, the plaintiff heard on a police scanner that there was a serious motor vehicle accident in the City of Hartford. He responded to the scene of the accident, where he operated a remote-controlled model aircraft, colloquially known as a 'drone,' he owns to hover over the accident scene and to record visual images of the accident scene. His device was hovering at an altitude of 150 feet. At all times relevant to this action, the plaintiff was standing outside of the area denoted as the crime scene by officers responding to the accident. He was standing in a public place, operating his device in public space, observing events that were in plain view," Rivera says in his brief, 5-page lawsuit.
It continues: "Although the plaintiff is employed as a photographer and editor at a local television station, he was not acting as an employee of the television station at the time, a fact he made clear to police officers who were also at the accident scene, including defendant [police Sgt.] Yergeau and others.
"The plaintiff did acknowledge to defendant Yergeau and others that he does, from time to time, forward the video feed from his drone to the television station for which he works."
Rivera claims that 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. The plaintiff did not feel as though he were free to leave during the course of this questioning."
He claims the police "demanded that the plaintiff cease operating the device over the accident scene, and that he leave the area."
But Rivera's attorney, Norman Pattis, claims his client wasn't breaking any laws.
"Private citizens do not need local, state or federal approval to operate a remote-controlled model aircraft," Pattis wrote in the lawsuit.
Rivera learned of the one-car accident from the police scanner and "His device was hovering at an altitude of 150 feet," the complaint states.
After the incident, defendant police Lt. Brian Foley contacted Rivera's news station to speak with his supervisor and complain about 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.' 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 employer by disciplining the plaintiff," the complaint states.
As a result of that phone call, Rivera says, he was suspended for "at least one week."
He claims that "Defendant Foley intended to chill, and did chill, the plaintiff in his First Amendment right to freedom of speech," and that "Defendant Foley was inspired by improper motive: to wit, to prevent the public at large to have video reports of what police officers do in the investigation of a crime."
Rivera seeks declaratory relief, an injunction, and compensatory and punitive damages for civil rights violations.
U.S. military use of lethal drones has become a hot issue worldwide, as the administration has used it to kill terrorist suspects, including some U.S. citizens, and occasionally errs by massacring wedding parties, for example, from a distance.
Some U.S. sheriff's and police departments are known to operate drones in U.S. airspace, but none has ever acknowledged using a drone with lethal capacity, domestically.