With the advent of the technology age came cameras prominently displayed on every street corner, embedded in our laptop screens and carried by the majority of Americans in their purses or pockets.
Privacy advocates argued that cameras and microphones gave government officials unprecedented access into our private lives. To no avail, however, as federal, state and local government ramped up efforts to survey everything from rural streets to sporting events. We the people became desensitized and it seems we have willingly given up our rights to privacy, at least in public.
One group, however, who seems to have the government on their side because they feel their privacy in public is being violated are police officers, and states are stepping up prosecutions of those who have recorded videos of police officers in a not-so-good light:
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.
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 short, recordings that are flattering to the police – an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog – will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. The only people who seem prone to prosecution are those who embarrass or confront the police, or who somehow challenge the law. If true, then the prosecutions are a form of social control to discourage criticism of the police or simple dissent.
When the police act as though cameras were the equivalent of guns pointed at them, there is a sense in which they are correct. Cameras have become the most effective weapon that ordinary people have to protect against and to expose police abuse. And the police want it to stop.
Happily, even as the practice of arresting “shooters” expands, there are signs of effective backlash. At least one Pennsylvania jurisdiction has reaffirmed the right to video in public places. As part of a settlement with ACLU attorneys who represented an arrested “shooter,” the police in Spring City and East Vincent Township adopted a written policy allowing the recording of on-duty policemen.
The Congress of the United States should move immediately to establish legislation that protects a citizen’s right to record video and audio of any on-duty police officer in a public place or in their own home without having to obtain consent. We realize Congress is busy with trillion dollar bailouts and first class in-flight parties, but if there’s one thing they should be responsible for it’s protecting the rights of the American people, and this should be at the top of the list.
The adage “if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about” should apply not justÂ to citizen proles, but government officials as well, especially if those officials control the destiny of other individuals.
The public is the final cross-check and balance against government tyranny. If only the government has the power to record, arrest, prosecute and judge then we truly are living in a police state.