November 26, 2012
The state of Illinois has some of the harshest “eavesdropping” laws on the books, and those statutes have been frequently abused to prosecute individuals for filming police actions in public in numerous cases.
Now, a fresh Supreme Court decision has declared this to be a violation of the First Amendment, refusing to hear an appeal from Cook County officials to allow prosecution of those recording cops, and instead upholding a lower court decision that resulted from an ACLU lawsuit.
Violations of the eavesdropping statute, designed to prevent covert recordings without consent, but which have been applied to public photography, carry a harsh maximum sentence of 15 years in Illinois, while most states recognize the lack of a perception of privacy in public places.
A federal appeals court in Chicago concurred with the ACLU’s argument that, “Illinois eavesdropping statute restricts far more speech than necessary to protect legitimate privacy interests.” That decision came last May ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago, and prompted a policy not to target protesters and citizens in the streets with iPhones and digital cameras during the events. The Supreme Court thus refused to review that decision, despite an appeal by the Cook County attorney general to do so, upholding the principle in alignment with rather clear cut freedom of speech issues.
This precedent may impact the eleven other states with similar all-party consent provisions in their recording laws, including California, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana (requires notification only), Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington.
The Illinois House attempted to pass legislation allowing audio recordings of police in public places, but the bill failed 45-59. Critics, including the ACLU, have argued that upholding the right to film public figures, and especially police, is vital to preventing abuse and encouraging accountability.
The ACLU’s action followed a 2011 acquittal in Cook County on the basis that the statutes are unconstitutional. The Chicago Tribune reports:
In August of 2011, a Cook County jury acquitted a woman who had been charged with recording Chicago police internal affairs investigators she believed were trying to dissuade her from filing a sexual harassment complaint against a patrol officer.
Judges in Cook and Crawford counties later declared the law unconstitutional, and the McLean County state’s attorney cited flaws in the law when he dropped charges this past February against a man accused of recording an officer during a traffic stop.
In another shocking case in Illinois, Michael Allison was effectively threatened with life in prison for recording police after authorities sought the maximum sentence possible for 5 counts of violating the eavesdropping provision. After Allison appeared on the Alex Jones Show and public pressure mounted, an Illinois judge finally threw the case out, recognizing it as unconstitutional.
Life in Prison for Filming Police: Michael Allison Speaks
It is important to re-establish free speech as protected under the First Amendment as the age of cell phone cameras and live streaming video have put cop behavior in the spotlight, and also prompted waves of false arrests across the nation. Reason.com published a worthwhile video on the war on cameras that has heightened as technology has become more affordable and widespread:
The Government’s War on Cameras
A man just arrested in California for recording police has sparked new outrage after he was jailed four days.
Meanwhile, arrests are taking places for the same behavior even in states with single-party consent wiretapping laws. A soldier in Georgia was arrested for filming police on the basis that he was ‘obstructing’ law enforcement activities (he was documenting while questioning police during a traffic stop). Independent reporter and publisher of the Maui Time Weekly was arrested in Hawaii for ‘obstructing’ while filming police from a distance while they pulled over vehicles, reportedly for petty traffic violations.
Earlier in 2012, the founder of CopBlock.org was sentenced to some 3 months in jail for ‘wiretapping’ in New Hampshire. The organization seeks to hold police accountable by filming their actions.
This trend continues, despite new recognitions of filming in public as protected, free speech. The First Circuit of the US Court of Appeals in Massachusetts upheld the right to film police and other public officials in 2011.
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