City to pay man $20K after police seized his phone with recording of 7-Eleven melee

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7-Eleven on South Main Street, scene of a fight in 2019 that led to a lawsuit against Manchester police. File Photo

MANCHESTER, NH – The city is paying a Manchester man $20,000 to settle a lawsuit against police officers who twisted his arm and seized his cell phone containing a recording of a brawl two years ago outside a 7-Eleven.

Neil Pineda-Landaverde, 32, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Concord on March 9, 2020, against the city and Officers Matthew Barter, James Pittman and Connor Mefford.

The city disputed the claims.

The ACLU maintained that police forcibly seized his iPhone without obtaining a warrant.  On the cell phone was an eight-minute recording of officers’ actions during the Oct. 17, 2019 melee outside the 7-Eleven, 85 South Main St., on the city’s West Side.  Five people were arrested.

The ACLU alleged police violated Pineda-Landaverde’s Fourth and First Amendment rights when they took the cell phone. Police then kept it for 15 days without obtaining a warrant and then only sought one after Pineda-Landaverde’s lawyer demanded the phone’s return on Oct. 29, 2019.  

Police, attorneys said, then obtained an “overbroad warrant that exceeded the recording in question in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

Pineda-Landaverde didn’t get his cell phone back until December of 2019, about two months later.

 “If the police want to seize a bystander’s phone, the answer is simple—get a warrant,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire.  “Public recordings of police have been instrumental in ensuring transparency and accountability, and the right to record is enshrined in the First Amendment. Actions like this from law enforcement can instill fear in people simply wishing to exercise their constitutional rights. We are hopeful that this settlement will cause police departments to think twice before seizing a bystander’s cell phone without a warrant after recording the police.”

Barter, who was promoted to lieutenant in February and is chief of staff for Police Chief Allen Aldenberg, said the department doesn’t “typically comment on the settlement of cases and that will be the same in this instance.”

According to the lawsuit and news articles at the time, about 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 17, 2019 police went to the South Main Street 7-Eleven for a reported fight.   

About that same time, Pineda-Landaverde was a passenger in a car being driven by his mother.  They were returning to her home from a medical appointment.  As they turned onto Clinton Street, they saw two police cruisers and a large crowd at the 7-Eleven.

Pineda-Landaverede’s wife, Jennily Paris, was working at the 7-Eleven that afternoon.  He got out of the car and went to the store to ensure she was safe.  He found Paris who was safe but upset.

Officers were yelling and telling people to stand back.  Pineda-Landaverda saw the crowd of people and police trying to get them under control.  Multiple altercations were taking place with people pushing and getting arrested.

Pineda-Landaverde took out his cell phone and tried to record what was happening. He wanted to document officers’ actions to ensure they could be held accountable if they acted inappropriately, according to the lawsuit.

There were another 20 to 30 people watching the officers as well, many of them also recording the incident.

While he was holding his phone, his wife pointed out he was not actually recording.  Instead, he had only taken a picture.

He then began actually recording what was happening, recording the incident for about eight minutes. 

Police issued a news release at the time about the incident.  In it they said police arrived at the 7-Eleven to about a dozen people arguing.   One officer started talking to some people and as he did the group began to surround him. Another officer told the crowd they needed to move back. Breyanna Wilson, 21, of Goffstown, swore at the officer and pushed him. As he tried to arrest her, she punched him in the jaw. Wilson was arrested.  

More officers arrived for backup. The rest of the group refused to leave and began fighting with officers and yelling profanities. The melee drew the attention of on-lookers and a group of people began to gather.   

According to the lawsuit, once the incident was over, Officer Connor Mefford approached Paris and questioned her about the incident. Officer James Pittman asked Pineda-Landaverede if he had a video of the incident and, if so, how much of it he was able to record.

He told Pittman he did not have a complete recording because he arrived after it had started but he also told the officer he did not want to turn his phone over to police.  He said many other bystanders had recorded the incident.

Pittman, who knows Pineda-Landaverde, told other officers that “this is Neil Pineda-Landaverde.  He won’t cooperate with us.”

Pineda-Landaverde said he was not going to voluntarily give up his phone to them.

“We know, Neil. You know your rights!” Pittman said sarcastically, according to the lawsuit.

Pineda-Landaverde told his wife, “Why answer his questions and help them when they never come here to help you when you call?”  He was referring to times when 7-Eleven employees like his wife called police for help and they didn’t show up.

Barter, then a sergeant, was standing nearby, listening to the conversation.  He then demanded Pineda-Landaverde turn over his phone, said the phone had evidence on it and if he didn’t turn it over, he would be arrested.

The lawsuit maintained police did not have any reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe Pineda-Landaverde had engaged in criminal activity.  Pineda-Landaverde refused to hand over his phone, asserting his right not to have his property seized without a warrant.

Pineda-Landaverde offered to delete the video but instead Barter “forcibly grabbed Mr. Pineda-Landavere’s right wrist in an effort to get at his phone.”  The lawsuit said Mefford also forcibly grabbed his other wrist while Pittman twisted his arm.  At the time, Pineda-Landavere’s hands were in his pants pockets.  The phone was in his front sweatshirt pocket.

He then was immediately surrounded by more than a dozen officers.

“During this assault by the Police Officer Defendants, where they physically contacted Mr. Pineda-Landaverde without his consent, the phone was knocked out of Mr. Pineda-Landaverde’s front sweatshirt pocket.  It landed on the ground.”  Police then took the phone.

The lawsuit says the officers said in their police reports they did that “because Mr. Pineda-Landaverde reached into the front pocket of his sweatshirt, thereby causing them to believe that he was attempting to grab his phone to delete the evidence.”

“As confirmed by video, these statements in the police reports are false.  Mr. Pineda-Landaverde did not reach for his phone, nor was there any reason to believe that he was going to imminently delete the video.  The Police Officer Defendants alleged this in their police reports as a ruse designed to manufacture an exigency that they could then use to seize Mr. Pineda-Landaverde’s phone without a warrant.”

Once they had the phone, police told Pineda-Landaverde to leave or they would arrest him for disorderly conduct.

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Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.