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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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Last January, Michael Allison, a 41-year-old mechanic from Bridgeport, Illinois, went to court to protest what he saw as unfair treatment from local police officers. Allison is an auto enthusiast who likes to tinker with cars, several of which he keeps on his mother's property in the neighboring town of Robinson. Because both towns have "eyesore," or abandoned property, rules that require inoperable cars to be either registered or kept in a garage (which neither house had, and which Allison could not afford to build), Allison's cars were repeatedly impounded by local officials.

Allison sued the city of Bridgeport in 2007, arguing that the eyesore law violated his civil rights and that the city was merely trying to bilk revenues from impound fees. This apparently enraged the local police, who, Allison alleges, began harassing him at home and threatening arrest when Allison refused to get rid of his cars.

Shortly before his January 2010 court date, Allison requested a court reporter for the hearing, making it clear to the county clerk that if one was not present he would record the proceedings himself.

With the request for a court reporter denied, Allison made good on his promise to bring his own audio recorder with him to the courthouse. Here's what happened next, as reported by Radley Bilko in the latest issue of Reason magazine:

Just after he walked through the courthouse door the next day, Allison says Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Kimbara Harrell asked him whether he had a tape recorder in his pocket. He said yes. Harrell then asked him if it was turned on. Allison said it was. Harrell then informed the defendant that he was in violation of the Illinois wiretapping law, which makes it a Class 1 felony to record someone without his consent. “You violated my right to privacy,” the judge said.

Allison responded that he had no idea it was illegal to record public officials during the course of their work, that there was no sign or notice barring tape recorders in the courtroom, and that he brought one only because his request for a court reporter had been denied. No matter: After Harrell found him guilty of violating the car ordinance, Allison, who had no prior criminal record, was hit with five counts of wiretapping, each punishable by four to 15 years in prison. Harrell threw him in jail, setting bail at $35,000.

That's up to 75 years in prison for breaking a law Allison did not know existed, and which he violated in the name of protecting himself from what he saw as an injustice.

As Bilko points out, Allison's case may be extreme, but he is hardly alone in facing outsized punishment for efforts to combat police wrongdoing. Take Christopher Drew and Tiawanda Moore, two Chicagoans highlighted in the New York Times last week. Drew, a 60-year-old artist, faces up to 15 years in prison for using a digital video recorder during his December 2009 arrest for selling art without a permit. Drew had planned on getting arrested in protest of the permit law, which he saw as a violation of artists' rights. He was unaware that filming the ordeal was illegal.

Likewise, Moore, a 20-year-old Southside resident, did not know it was illegal to record a conversation she had with two police officers last August, and she too faces a prison sentence of up to 15 years for doing so. Moore's case is especially troubling because she was in the process of filing a complaint with the two officers about a third officer, who Moore alleges sexually harassed her in her home. She told the Times that she "was only trying to make sure no other women suffered at the hands of the officer" by making the recording. Presumably, she was also trying to protect herself in case she faced another lewd advance. Instead, the officers tried to talk her out of filing her complaint and then slapped her with eavesdropping charges when they found out her Blackberry was recording.

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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