PITTSBURGH - The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of Michael Gratteri, who was arrested and jailed after he posted a video on Facebook of his interaction with a Ford City police officer over a parking dispute in front of his home. According to the lawsuit, the officer charged Gratteri with violating the Wiretap Act after receiving advice from Armstrong County District Attorney Scott Andreassi.
“Documenting police officers’ official duties by audio and video recording is protected by the First Amendment. It is essential to holding police accountable and does not violate Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act,” said Sara Rose, staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
In September 2014, Gratteri used his cell phone to record a dispute he had with a Ford City High School teacher who repeatedly parked in front of his home and Ford City Police Officer Joshua Wilford. During the interaction, his cell phone was clipped conspicuously to the front of his shirt, and he made reference to the fact he was recording the incident. A month later, after learning that Gratteri had posted the recording on Facebook, Officer Wilford returned to Gratteri’s home and arrested him for violating the Wiretap Act and for disorderly conduct. Officer Wilford placed Gratteri in handcuffs and put him in a police cruiser in front of Gratteri’s young son, who ran down the street with tears streaming down his face as the police car drove away with his father inside.
Officer Wilford then drove Gratteri – handcuffed – to the Armstrong County Jail, ignoring Gratteri’s requests to buckle his seatbelt as Gratteri’s body was knocked around the back of the police cruiser. Gratteri spent more than seven hours in jail until he was able to post bond and be released.
“I went from sitting on my deck with my family one minute to being in handcuffs,” said Gratteri. “I was in shock. Even though I knew I had done nothing illegal, I was scared that I would not be able to get out of jail.”
Armstrong District Attorney Andreassi ultimately decided to withdraw the Wiretap Act and disorderly conduct charges against Gratteri, but only after incorrectly advising Officer Wilford that he could file Wiretap Act charges against Gratteri for the recording posted on Facebook. DA Andreassi’s advice to Officer Wilford and his statements to the media about the case demonstrate that Armstrong County advises law enforcement officers that they can file Wiretap Act charges against individuals who record police activity in public places.
"The wiretap law does not apply to public interactions with the police,” said Christy Foreman, a volunteer attorney representing Gratteri. “The officer's actions charging Gratteri were intended to punish him for posting the recording on Facebook."
The ACLU of Pennsylvania has filed multiple lawsuits on behalf of individuals who were arrested for observing or recording police in the course of their public duties. A case against the city of Philadelphia on behalf of a Temple undergraduate student who was arrested for photographing on-duty Philadelphia police officers is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.