Protest in downtown San Diego
Protesters seek justice for Breonna Taylor in downtown San Diego in September. Photo by Enrique Morones

A woman sued San Diego police in federal court accusing the department of illegally seizing her cellphone during a protest and months later, not returning it, in violation of her constitutional rights.

The suit filed on behalf of Christina Griffin-Jones alleges SDPD arrested her and seized her phone and other belongings during a Sept. 23 protest regarding the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

They released Griffin-Jones from custody the following day, but she accuses the SDPD of refusing to return her phone.

The suit alleges the continued retention of the phone constitutes violations of her Fourth Amendment and due process rights.

Defendants in the suit include the city of San Diego and 25 unidentified San Diego police officers.

A San Diego Police Department spokesman declined comment regarding the lawsuit.

“Cellphone video footage has brought global attention to law enforcement officers’ wanton use of force on Black community members, sparked public outrage on the issue and inspired millions to take to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jonathan Markovitz, one of several representing Griffin-Jones in the case.

“When police seize and unlawfully maintain possession of people’s phones, they strike at the heart of one of the most important struggles for social justice in our lifetimes. Such prolonged seizures must be challenged and ended.”

Last fall, a coalition of local civil rights’ attorneys sent a letter to the San Diego Police Department, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, City Attorney’s Office and District Attorney’s Office, calling for the return of several phones seized from protesters during an Aug. 28 demonstration.

The letter stated that continued seizures of the phones were unconstitutional without search warrants.

SDPD stated in response that “phones which are impounded as evidence will remain in our custody, and if the contents are going to be sought, a detective will request a search warrant from a judge as required by law.”

According to an ACLU statement, state law requires that written notice must be given when a warrant is executed to search a person’s seized phone. Griffin-Jones has not received any such notice, nor has she been criminally charged in connection with the arrest.

Attorneys are also challenging police department policies regarding the seizures of cellphones, which they allege differ from other types of property seizures due to the potential privacy implications.

“It is important to understand that what happened to our client is not an isolated incident. The illegal seizure of protesters’ cell phones now appears to be a common practice and a tool for repression,” said Genevieve Jones-Wright, director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance.

“I am afraid that law enforcement, including SDPD, is using this tactic to intimidate and discourage protesters and organizers in an effort to silence them. Whatever the purpose behind the actions, the actions are not lawful. This is why it is important for lawyers to step up and protect our cherished constitutional freedoms.”

– City News Service