FT. PIERCE, FL – A federal jury ruled this week that the actions of a Florida sheriff’s deputy were illegal when he seized a crash bystander’s cell phone as evidence. In the federal lawsuit against the Martin County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) Deputy Steven Beatty, a 29-year veteran, violated county resident James Crocker’s civil rights when the deputy grabbed the traffic accident bystander’s cell phone saying any photos taken are state’s evidence.
Guy Rubin, Crocker’s attorney, said the jury of six women and one man’s ruling established a precedent and set limitations on the powers of police to collect cell phones during roadside circumstances.
In May 2012, Crocker was heading northbound on Interstate 95 around 2 p.m. when he came across a deadly roll-over crash between Palm Beach Gardens and Stuart. He pulled over onto the median to provide assistance and to document the scene.
“I saw a terrible accident, other cars pulling over. So, I did what I think anybody would do. I stopped to help,” Crocker said.
When the emergency crews arrived on the scene, Crocker and others who were trying to help backed off.
“I took out my phone and I took four or five pictures,” Crocker said, adding that he saw others doing the same.
“I no sooner put my phone back by my side and an officer approached me and just literally took my phone from my hand,” Crocker said.
Beatty did not have a warrant and he did not have Crocker’s consent when he took the phone at the crash site.
“I said to him ‘Sir I didn’t realize it was illegal to take pictures’. He said ‘it’s not, but your phone is now evidence of the state. Get in your car and leave.’… I said ‘sir I’m happy to leave but not without my phone’. He said ‘turn around, you’re under arrest’.”
The jury frowned on the deputy’s behavior and handling of the crash scene. They agreed that Crocker’s arrest was unlawful and the deputy used unnecessary and inhumane force by tightening his handcuffs to inflict pain and locking him in the back of the patrol car. The officer also shut off the air conditioning in the car for 33 minutes. The jury awarded Crocker $1000 in compensatory damages for the mistreatment at the hands of the state.
The award is a drop in the bucket compared to what Crocker has had to spend to seek justice. He has so far spent $350,000 in legal fees and costs. He is eligible to seek reimbursement for his legal expenses. Crocker did not that reaching justice against an overreaching cop should not have been so drawn out and expensive. Unfortunately, justice is reserved for those who can afford it he surmised. That is a sentiment that is echoed by less affluent communities nationwide.
“As an ordinary citizen blessed with success in my business ventures, I felt I had an obligation to see this case through to the end, not only to vindicate my rights violated that day, but for all the people who don’t have the resources to bring a court case and see it through to the end, which is a very expensive and lengthy proposition,” Crocker said.
The favorable ruling opened the door for Crocker’s attorney to revisit an old claim against the Sheriff’s Office alleging violation of Crocker’s First Amendment right. In the claim Rubin challenged the MCSO alleging they violated his client’s right to document an event in a public place. The claim also address Crocker’s false arrest and mistreatment.
The MCSO released this statement following the ruling:
“At the time of this horrific fatal crash, Deputy Beatty felt that it was reasonable to take possession of the phone which he believed contained graphic images of the crash scene and the deceased, taken by Mr. James Crocker, who was a roadside bystander. Images Deputy Beatty felt may have been valuable to traffic homicide investigators.