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75-Year Prison Sentence for Taping the Police? The Absurd Laws That Criminalize Audio and Video Recording in America

The growing accessibility of recording devices is prompting officials to dig up dusty old eavesdropping laws that are being used to intimidate the nation's citizens.

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These stories all highlight Illinois' draconian eavesdropping laws, which, ever since a privacy provision was overturned in 1994, have made it illegal to record audio of an individual without his or her consent. Carrying a sentence of between four and 15 years, the laws in the state are some of the harshest in the nation.

Illinois isn't the only state waging a war on citizens with recording devices. Across the country, the growing accessibility of recording devices (like smart phones) and media-sharing sites (like YouTube) is prompting officials to dredge up dusty old eavesdropping and wiretapping laws, leading to "a legal mess of outdated, loosely interpreted statutes and piecemeal court opinions that leave both cops and citizens unsure of when recording becomes a crime," according to Bilko.

The good news is that few people have actually been convicted under these laws for documenting police wrongdoing; neither Michael Allison nor Christopher Drew nor Tiawanda Moore are likely to go to prison for the recordings they made. The bad news, though, is that these laws are being used to intimidate the nation's citizens, making them afraid to stand up against police officers and other officials who are acting illegally and/or immorally. As long as no one is convicted, the law goes unchallenged, notes Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel for the ACLU of Illinois.

The intimidation techniques extend to still photographers as well, as documented by Carlos Miller on the blog Photography is Not a Crime, which catalogs rights violations against people with cameras and teaches citizens about their legal rights to photograph people and places. (Things that can almost always be photographed from a public place, "despite popular opinion," according to Miller's Web site: criminal activities, law enforcement officers, industrial facilities.) Miller himself has been illegally arrested and had his photos deleted for taking pictures of police officers.

Although he's always beaten his cases in court, Miller recognizes that coming out on top after the fact isn't good enough. "There’s this idea that just because charges are dropped, there’s no harm,” Miller told Reason. “But that isn’t right. There’s definitely harm when someone is illegally arrested and has to spend a night or more in jail. Your life is disrupted. You now have legal bills to deal with. There’s also harm when a cop wrongly tells someone they can’t photograph or record. He’s intimidating them into giving up their rights.”

Some of the most widely viewed posts on Miller's blog -- " St. Louis Cop Beats Man Down in Youtube Video," " Surveillance video once again shines light on Philadelphia PD corruption" -- are testament to why citizens need the explicit legal right to document officers' wrongdoings. Without the recordings of these events (and many, many others like them), justice probably never would have been realized, and the truth never brought to light. Unless we overturn the nation's most over-the-top eavesdropping laws, our legal system will continue to obstruct, rather than promote, justice.

Lauren Kelley is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to Change.org, The L Magazine and Time Out New York. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter here.

 
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