Ohio officer fights suspension over wrongful video camera arrest

Defying a direct order from his supervisor, Akron Police Department Officer Donald Schismenos had a woman arrested on false felony charges last summer after she refused to hand over a video camera which she used to film him making an arrest.

The woman ended up spending 18 hours in jail before her charges were dropped.

The cop ended up with a 15-day suspension, which he has yet to serve. Schismenos has appealed the suspension and is scheduled for a hearing next month.

The woman, Sarah Watkins, is now considering filing a lawsuit. I don’t know what’s taking her so long.

The incident occurred last June when Watkins stepped outside her home and began filming police arresting a man on disorderly conduct charges. After the arrest, Schismenos demanded she hand over the camera as evidence.

As a couple of attorneys explained on Photography is Not a Crime last year, unless that camera is used in a commission of a crime, police must first obtain a warrant.

In its article on the incident, the Akron Beacon Journal interviewed a law professor who further confirmed this.

Under some circumstances, police can seize a citizen’s video as evidence. However, because Watkins was merely a witness and not a suspect, police should first seek a search warrant to confiscate the camera, said University of Akron law professor Dean Carro.

”The general rule is if a police officer has probable cause to believe the item was used in a crime or is the fruit of a crime, he can seize the item,” Carro said. ”In this situation, it doesn’t appear that either circumstance is met. So therefore, my inclination is that the officer would need a search warrant in order to obtain it.”

Here is an excerpt of the exchange that took place between Watkins and Schismenos, according to the video, which can be seen by clicking on the article.

”How ya doing, ma’am?” Schismenos says, according to the videotape.

”Appreciate you getting that on video for us. What’s your name?”

”You don’t need to know my name,” Watkins replies.

”Yes, I do,” the officer responds. ”And I need to seize the video and so I can get it back to you, I need your name.”

”No,” she replies.

”Ma’am, I’m seizing the video. Don’t walk into the house with it because it’s evidence. You can get it back, but we need to make a copy of it.”

”This is my camera. This is my personal camera,” Watkins says.

”And we’re going to seize it, ma’am, for evidence. If you have a problem with that, call a supervisor.”

Watkins still refused to surrender the video and at one point tried to go inside. Schismenos grabbed her arm to stop her.

”Ma’am, you’re going to give me the camera, or I will take the camera.”

”No.”

”If you don’t, you’ll be arrested for obstructing.”

”No.”

”And you’ll be arrested for tampering.”

Lakura Watkins intervened, asking the officer why her mother would be charged.

”Because that’s evidence now. She got [Baker's] disorderly conduct on tape and we’re going to use that in court,” he says.

Eventually, Schismenos’ supervisor, Sgt. David Hammond, ordered him to “let it go” when learning about him trying to obtain the video camera.

”Don, it’s not worth all that,” Hammond told Schismenos. ”We are not taking her video for a [misdemeanor disorderly conduct].”

And Schismenos did let it go. At least for the time being.

But he ended up writing out a felony criminal warrant for Watkins, charging her with tampering with evidence and obstructing justice.

The following day, a couple of officers knocked on her door and arrested her, where she was forced to strip, shower and sleep in a jail reeking of urine.

A county grand jury eventually dismissed the charges.

Even though Schismenos defied his sergeant’s direct orders, he still doesn’t believe he deserves a 15-day suspension. And the police union is backing him up.

Union President Paul Hlynsky proved to be as ignorant of the law as Schismenos when he said that the officer ”had a perfect right to seize the camera as evidence.”

He had absolutely no right, which is why Watkins should be suing.

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