Did Connecticut state troopers unwittingly record themselves fabricating charges against a protester? That’s what a new lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Connecticut claims. On September 11, 2015, Connecticut resident Michael Picard was reportedly peacefully protesting at a traffic checkpoint in West Hartford when state trooper John Barone walked over to Picard and slapped Picard’s camera out of his hand. Barone then confiscated Picard’s legally carried pistol and pistol permit. When Picard picked up his camera and resumed filming, Barone erroneously claimed that filming the police is illegal. He proceeded to confiscate Picard’s camera and take it back to his police cruiser, placing it on the car’s roof. What the troopers didn’t realize was that the camera was still working and recording their full conversation. In the recording, Barone can be heard discussing with Sergeant John Jacobi how to justify charging Picard, saying at one point, “gotta cover our ass.” We speak with Dan Barrett, the ACLU of Connecticut’s legal director.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to our last segment. Nermeen?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Did Connecticut state troopers unwittingly record themselves fabricating charges against a protester? That’s what a new lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Connecticut claims. On September 11th, 2015, Connecticut resident Michael Picard was reportedly peacefully protesting at a traffic checkpoint in West Hartford when state trooper John Barone walked over to Picard and slapped Picard’s camera out of his hand. Barone then confiscated Picard’s legally carried pistol and pistol permit. When Picard picked up his camera and resumed filming, Barone erroneously claimed that filming the police is illegal. He proceeded to confiscate Picard’s camera and take it back to his police cruiser, placing it on the car’s roof. What the troopers didn’t realize was that the camera was still working and recording their full conversation. In the recording, Barone can be heard discussing with Sergeant John Jacobi how to justify charging Picard, saying at one point, quote, “gotta cover our ass.” Listen closely.
TROOPER JOHN BARONE: You want me to punch a number on this either way? Gotta cover our ass.
SGT. JOHN JACOBI: He was on—he was on the highway portion?
TROOPER JOHN BARONE: Yeah.
SGT. JOHN JACOBI: So we can hit him with reckless use of the highway by a pedestrian and creating a public disturbance, and whatever he said.
AMY GOODMAN: With the camera still rolling, the officers proceeded to call a Hartford police officer to see if there was any grudges against Picard, open an investigation of Picard in the police database, and discuss a separate protest that he had organized at the state Capitol. The police eventually charged Picard with reckless use of highway by a pedestrian and creating a public disturbance. Both charges are eventually dropped by the state after nearly a year in the Connecticut Superior Court system. Now the ACLU of Connecticut is representing Picard in a lawsuit against three of the state police troopers involved in the incident: John Barone, Patrick Torneo and John Jacobi.
For more, we go to Hartford, where we’re joined by Dan Barrett, who’s the legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut.
Dan Barrett, welcome to Democracy Now! You know, it’s really hard to hear the video that they unwittingly had on as they were scheming. Can you say what it said and what you’re calling for?
DAN BARRETT: Sure. A lot of the video, as you say, is somewhat difficult to hear, but there are many points in the video in which it’s quite clear what’s going on. And as you say, after Michael’s camera was confiscated, the state troopers appear to have a discussion in which they go over Michael’s past protests, even though Michael had never met any of the three troopers there. And then they talk about which charges they could apply to Michael. So, the salient points, to my untrained ears, are there in the video, in that we have a discussion about what appears to be retaliating against a protester for his activities.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain, Dan Barrett, what rights do protesters have to film or photograph police officers?
DAN BARRETT: Sure. As long as the person doing the filming is not interfering with the police officers, there’s no prohibition, certainly in Connecticut, against recording the police officers doing their work in public. And that’s true, by the way, of any government employee. So, for me, the ridiculousness of the situation that Michael faced is that if he had been recording, you know, a road crew or a fire department putting out a fire, it would be laughable for one of those government employees to come up and take away his camera. But generally speaking, to answer your question, if a person is not directly interfering with the government employee who’s doing their job, then they’re free to record what’s going on on a public street.
AMY GOODMAN: So you have the police officer telling Picard, “Taking my picture is illegal.” And then you have the recording capturing the troopers saying at one point, “We really got to cover our asses.”
DAN BARRETT: That’s right. And so, the combination of those things is pretty galling, especially here in Connecticut, where we recently—our Legislature passed a state law, in fact, that makes clear that people can record the police doing their job. So, we have, you know, no prohibition against it. Not only that, we have our state Legislature saying quite clearly that it’s permissible and that any police officer who gets in the way of a recording can be sued. And then we have a discussion about what might be done to a protester who’s exercising his rights both to protest and to record.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what do you think should happen to those police officers? Should they be criminally charged?
DAN BARRETT: Well, I’m not sure about criminal charges, but I think that there’s a number of things that have to happen, all of which fall under the category of correction. And this is something that—the reason that this case is so important is not just for the right to record and the right to protest for everyone in Connecticut, but also because we’re at a moment in our history—or maybe I should say, you know, another sad moment in our history—when we’re trying to get control over the police, and we’re trying to get police departments across the country to understand that they need to behave in a different way than business as usual. And so, I think, generally speaking, what would be nice to happen to the state troopers involved here is a correction to their behavior, so some meaningful intervention which would correct their behavior and teach them that what they did was wrong and that it should never happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: How unusual—
DAN BARRETT: And an intervention—sorry, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: How unusual is it for police to fabricate charges?
DAN BARRETT: Well, I can’t really say empirically. I’m sure there are people who have some pretty strong opinions about that. You know, it’s really hard for me to tell. But in this case, it certainly seems, from the evidence, that what was going on is a discussion about what might be said and might be put into the record to support charges. And so it’s very disturbing.
AMY GOODMAN: And how your client, Michael Picard—I’m just going fast because we have just a few seconds—how this affected his life? He’s been dealing with this now for a year in court, these charges against him?
DAN BARRETT: Sure. Having criminal charges hanging over one’s head is never a fun period. I mean, he has, for a year, worried about what was going to happen to him, and not only that, worried about what was going to happen—as the charges are hanging over, how does that affect his protest activity? He was worried about protesting. You know, would he make things worse for himself in the criminal case? So, it was very gut-wrenching for Michael.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan Barrett, I want to thank you for being with us, head of the ACLU of Connecticut, the legal director.
And a very belated happy birthday to Amy Littlefield, who hit a milestone yesterday. Happy 30, Amy.