Friday, August 10, 2012

Recording the police

In some states, holding the government accountable can get you in prison.

Eavesdropping and wiretapping laws, which were created to protect people's privacy, are often loosely interpreted by law enforcement and prosecutors as a justification for preventing people from recording them in action. As a result, people have been arrested on numerous occasions for catching acts of police impropriety.

These laws vary from state to state - openly recording police officers is perfectly legal in 38 states - but Illinois and Massachusetts have the most draconian eavesdropping laws on their books. While claiming that organized crime is the reason for its existence, Section 99 of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 272 sets a steep penalty for "interceptions:"
"Except as otherwise specifically provided in this section any person who—
willfully commits an interception, attempts to commit an interception, or procures any other person to commit an interception or to attempt to commit an interception of any wire or oral communication shall be fined not more than ten thousand dollars, or imprisoned in the state prison for not more than five years, or imprisoned in a jail or house of correction for not more than two and one half years, or both so fined and given one such imprisonment."
The Illinois law - Chapter 38, Paragraph 14 - is by far the worst. It is incredibly complex and gives a particularly harsh penalty for recording law enforcement officers: up to 15 years in prison! This law has also produced some of the most notorious cases of eavesdropping enforcement, including that of Tiawanda Moore, who was arrested for recording a conversation in which she claimed two officers were trying to talk her out of a sexual harassment complaint against another officer. She was acquitted after only an hour of jury deliberation.

The good news is that courts are throwing out these cases and ruling the laws themselves unconstitutional. After attorney Simon Glik was arrested - and subsequently acquitted - in Boston for using his cellular phone to record police officers roughing up a suspect, Glik sued the city and received a $170,000 settlement. The Illinois law has been struck down by a number of judges as violating the First Amendment, and a federal judge ordered Illinois officers not to enforce it.

But arrests do happen. If you are intrepid enough to have a go at recording police activity, though, Steve Silverman has a checklist for you to follow at Flex Your Rights.

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