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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirms summary judgment for defendant police officer in civil rights case alleging that the officer violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights by seizing his cell phone at accident scene

On April 20, 2021, in Crocker v. Deputy Sheriff Steven Eric Beatty, No. 18-14682, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a U.S. district court order granting summary judgment to the defendant law enforcement officer in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 case in which the plaintiff alleged that the officer violated his First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The plaintiff was a witness to the aftermath of a car crash on I-95 in South Florida who, along with several other motorists, stopped his car in the median to see if he could assist the victims. As law enforcement and emergency personnel began to arrive, the plaintiff and the other onlookers moved away. The plaintiff then stood 40–50 feet from the accident scene and about 125 feet from his own vehicle and began taking photos of the scene with his phone. The defendant officer subsequently approached the plaintiff, confiscated the plaintiff’s phone as evidence, and after the plaintiff protested and refused to leave the accident scene without his phone, the defendant arrested him for resisting an officer. The main issue before the Eleventh Circuit was whether the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because any violation of the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights was not “clearly established” under existing law. The plaintiff pointed to the Eleventh Circuit’s previous opinion in Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332 (11th Cir. 2000). There, the Court said that “[t]he First Amendment protects the right to gather information about what public officials do on public property, and specifically, a right to record matters of public interest.” 212 F.3d at 1333. In particular, the Court held that that the plaintiffs there “had a First Amendment right, subject to reasonable time, manner and place restrictions, to photograph or videotape police conduct.” However, the Court distinguished Smith, holding that “it is decidedly not obvious that Smith’s general rule applies to the specific situation in question’ here.” The Court held that in the specific situation in this case, involving a plaintiff who had been “spectating on the median of a major highway at the rapidly evolving scene of a fatal crash,” it would not be obvious to every reasonable officer that Smith gave the plaintiff the right to take pictures of the accident’s aftermath. The Court noted that Florida law prohibits individuals from parking on the side of a “limited access facility” like I-95, Fla. Stat. § 316.1945(1)(a)(11), or walking on the same, see id. § 316.130(18), and that when the defendant seized the plaintiff’s phone, the plaintiff was arguably in violation of both prohibitions.