Wendy McElroy at Gizmodo:
In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.
Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.
The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.
Massachusetts attorney June Jensen represented Simon Glik who was arrested for such a recording. She explained, “[T]he statute has been misconstrued by Boston police. You could go to the Boston Common and snap pictures and record if you want.” Legal scholar and professor Jonathan Turley agrees, “The police are basing this claim on a ridiculous reading of the two-party consent surveillance law – requiring all parties to consent to being taped. I have written in the area of surveillance law and can say that this is utter nonsense.”
The courts, however, disagree. A few weeks ago, an Illinois judge rejected a motion to dismiss an eavesdropping charge against Christopher Drew, who recorded his own arrest for selling one-dollar artwork on the streets of Chicago. Although the misdemeanor charges of not having a peddler’s license and peddling in a prohibited area were dropped, Drew is being prosecuted for illegal recording, a Class I felony punishable by 4 to 15 years in prison.
In 2001, when Michael Hyde was arrested for criminally violating the state’s electronic surveillance law – aka recording a police encounter – the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld his conviction 4-2. In dissent, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall stated, “Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police. Their role cannot be performed if citizens must fear criminal reprisals….” (Note: In some states it is the audio alone that makes the recording illegal.)
The selection of “shooters” targeted for prosecution do, indeed, suggest a pattern of either reprisal or an attempt to intimidate.
Radley Balko at Reason:
In a column last month I wrote about Anthony Graber, a Maryland man who was arrested for posting a video of a traffic stop to YouTube. Graber was pulled over on his motorcycle by Maryland State Trooper Joseph David Ulher. Uhler drew his gun during the stop. Graber was wearing a camera on his helmet. Graber thought Uhler’s actions were excessive, so he posted the video to the Internet. Days later, police raided the home of Graber’s parents. Graber was arrested, booked, and jailed. He was charged with violating Maryland’s wiretapping statute. In an interview he gave to blogger Carlos Miller shortly after, Graber said, “The judge who released me looked at the paperwork and said she didn’t see where I violated the wiretapping law.”
In my previous column, I interpreted that to mean the judge had dropped the charge. Apparently that isn’t the case. Graber is due in court next week. He faces up to five years in prison. State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly has also charged Graber with “Possession of an Interception Device.” That “device” would be Graber’s otherwise-perfectly-legal video camera.
Graber’s case is starting to spur some local and national media discussion of the state’s wiretapping law. As I mentioned in my column last month, his arrest came at about the same time the Jack McKenna case broke nationally. McKenna, a student at the University of Maryland, was given an unprovoked beating by police during student celebrations after a basketball game last February. McKenna would probably still be facing criminal charges and the cops who beat him would likely still be on the beat were it not for several cell phone videos that captured his beating. According to Cassily’s interpretation of the law, if any of those cell phones were close enough to record audio of the beating, the people who shot the videos are felons.
Now we have another video of an arrest during the Preakness Stakes in which a Baltimore police officer can be heard telling the camera-holder, “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to record anybody’s voice or anything else in the state of Maryland.”
That simply isn’t true, and it’s outrageous that Maryland law enforcement keeps perpetuating this myth. Perhaps that officer was merely misinformed. But Maryland police spokesmen and prosecutors are giving the impression that the state’s wiretapping law is ambiguous about recording on-duty police officers. It really isn’t. They’ve just chosen to interpret it that way, logic and common sense be damned.
Maryland is an all-parties-consent state, which means you have to get permission from all parties to a conversation before you can record it. But unlike Illinois and Massachusetts, Maryland’s law does include a privacy provision. That is, if the non-consenting party does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the conversation that has been recorded, there is no violation of the law. State and federal courts across the country have determined that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces. This is why someone can snap your photo in public without your consent.
No one expects what they say to a cop during a traffic stop to be private. But when you combine that with how some Maryland cops and prosecutors are interpreting the law, such as in Graber’s case, you get a perverse result: When a cop pulls you over or detains you for questioning, he—the public servant with the badge and the gun—retains a right to privacy for the entire encounter. You don’t.
This does not sound like a serious interpretation of the law. But it’s apparently the interpretation among Maryland law enforcement officials. A cynic might conclude that law enforcement officials in Maryland are reacting to the McKenna embarrassment by threatening and cracking down on anyone who videotapes on-duty cops, and they’ll interpret the law in whatever way allows them to do so. At least until a court tells them otherwise.
Whatever their motivation, their legal justification is dubious. The McKenna case is a strong argument in favor of more citizen monitoring of on-duty police. The police not only beat the kid, they then lied about it in police reports. The security camera footage of McKenna’s beating, which is controlled by University of Maryland Campus POlice, mysteriously disappeared. The officer in charge of the camera system is married to one of the officers involved in the beating. Does anyone really think the charges against McKenna would have been dropped—and the officers who beat him suspended—if it weren’t for the cell phone videos?
There are strong constitutional arguments in favor of a basic right to record on-duty police officers. But the prosecution of Anthony Graber is also wrong by any reasonable interpretation of state law, and by any sane concept of good public policy. This is the state that’s home to the notorious Prince George’s County Police Department, for God’s sake—the department that spent five years under federal oversight because of the repeated use of excessive force among its officers.
Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler should put an end to this faux ambiguity and declare that Marylanders who record on-duty cops are breaking no laws, much less committing felonies. He should also make it clear that so long as they don’t physically interfere with an arrest or police action, they also are at no risk of having their recording equipment confiscated or destroyed.
If he doesn’t, the state legislature should do it for him.
Did that video violate the privacy of the three officers, clad in riot gear and swinging batons, who surrounded and beat the unarmed McKenna? No. Neither did the video that Graber shot of the Maryland trooper strutting towards him with a drawn handgun. Courts have already explained that wrongs under the Maryland Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act require a showing that someone’s reasonable expectation of privacy has suffered violation (see Fearnow v. C & P Tel. Co., 104 Md. App. 1, 655 A.2d 1 (1995), rev’d on other grounds, 342 Md. 363, 676 A.2d 65 (1996)), and no officer can have a reasonable expectation of privacy while on a public street, performing public duties.
The Maryland ACLU has stepped forward to help defend Graber, and with any luck will soon educate local prosecutors about the proper scope of the Maryland Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act. In the meantime, and in other jurisdictions where police threaten to deploy privacy laws against whistle-blowers, we citizens would do well to remind public servants that we can and will record their on-the-job performance. I’ve worked up a couple of notices to help.
This bumper sticker should help to put police on notice that you may record them during traffic stops, thus negating any claim to a reasonable expectation of privacy:
Make sure that you place it where video taken from the officer’s vehicle will record it! That proof might end up helping your case if, like Graber, you want to publicize police abuse.
To make doubly sure that you give adequate notice to an officer who subjects you to a traffic stop, you might also want to carry this handy magnetic sign:
Once you have been pulled over, just roll down your window and slap the sign outside your door, where a police officer cannot fail to see it.
Click on either image to buy a copy for yourself or a friend. All proceeds will go to aid the defense of Anthony Graber. Perhaps his case would have turned out differently if he had had that bumper sticker on his helmet, or that magnetic sign on his gas tank. (I thank Prof. Orin Kerr for inspiring the wording of these notices, though he of course bears no blame for my legal hijinks.)
And this is all about the official rules. I’m pretty sure that unofficially, police have ways of punishing you for trying to record them, even if you are legally allowed to do so. Consider also:
An obvious enabler of police corruption is the fact that internal affairs units, tasked with exposing corruption, usually report to the same police chief that would be embarrassed by such exposure, and who may also be corrupt. An obvious solution is to make internal affairs more independent, e.g., reporting directly to a city council or even a governor.
This isn’t some temporary lack of adaptation to a new tech; the obvious solution has been possible, and ignored, for a long long time. Now ask yourself honestly, in near mode, what you think will usually happen in ten years to someone who tries to visibly record their interaction with police.
Via Alex Tabarrok, Gizmodo has a fascinating feature on how law enforcement officials are responding to the growing number of citizens who are using digital cameras to record police officers in the line of duty. So far, at least three states have banned recording on-duty police officers. This strikes me as an alarming and counterproductive trend. The vast majority of police officers behave responsibly and within the bounds of the law. But inevitably there are police officers who abuse their power, and the advent of cheap digital cameras gives citizens a valuable self-defense tool.
I could be missing something here. It’s possible that ubiquitous surveillance of this kind could undermine good order, perhaps by enforcing an excessively rigid and rule-bound approach to policing. My suspicion is that this danger is outweighed by the danger of pervasiveabuse that sows distrust between the police and the policed, a divide that is a particularly vexing problem in high-crime urban neighborhoods.
UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds at Popular Mechanics