Civil rights advocates claimed this week that San Diego police officers and county jail deputies have refused to return cellphones seized from individuals who were arrested at an August protest, including those who may have been released without charges or who had their charges quickly dismissed.

A sheriff’s spokesman denied the claim.

In a letter sent Thursday to San Diego’s police chief and city attorney, and to the county sheriff and district attorney, the civil rights attorneys claimed that the alleged seizure of the cellphones and refusal to return them appears not to be “the result of isolated decisions by individual officers,” but rather part of a “written or de-facto policy.”

The claims were made in a letter sent by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance and the Singleton Law Firm.

“The Sheriff’s Department did not seize any phones from those arrested at a protest in downtown San Diego on August 28,” sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Ricardo Lopez wrote in a statement Friday, citing the jail policy on processing personal property items. “It is untrue the Sheriff’s Department is holding the phones of released inmates.”

Lopez said the Sheriff’s Department has asked the civil rights attorneys for “a list of names of those claiming to not have received their phones but have not received that information.”

Officials from the San Diego Police Department did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the county District Attorney’s Office said the Sheriff’s Department was looking into the matter.

The protest in question occurred the last Friday in August, when about 150 demonstrators marched through downtown San Diego and protested outside police headquarters on Broadway in solidarity with protests that erupted in Wisconsin after the police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake.

San Diego police arrested at least nine people in San Diego during the demonstration, including four during an incident that allegedly involved a man pepper spraying officers. Police later arrested him, as well as two individuals accused of shining lasers at officers and a police helicopter.

Three others were arrested later that night outside police headquarters — one for allegedly punching an officer, one for allegedly kicking an officer and one for allegedly interfering with an arrest.

One of the protesters arrested that night told the Union-Tribune on Friday that he did not get his phone back. Though he declined to give his name, a reporter witnessed his arrest. The protester said police told him that his and other phones were kept for investigatory reasons.

In their letter, the civil rights attorneys said that if a policy or practice exists of seizing protesters’ cellphones without returning them, “it violates protestors’ Fourth Amendment and due process rights, and it should be immediately repealed and repudiated.”


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