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15 Years in Prison For Taping the Cops? How Eavesdropping Laws Are Taking Away Our Best Defense Against Police Brutality

More and more people use their smartphones to record police misconduct. But laws against wiretapping are being used to intimidate and stop them.

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The most pernicious prosecutions to date have taken place in Illinois, where the sentence for recording a police officer is considered a class 1 felony — on par with a  rape charge  — and can land a person behind bars for more than a decade.

The New York Times reported on a number of these cases back in January, one of which involves Tiawonda Moore  from Chicago, Illinois, who faces up to 15 years in prison for using her Blackberry to record two Internal Affairs investigators who spoke to her inside police headquarters. She was there last August to file a sexual harassment complaint against another officer, who she alleges had "fondled her and left his personal telephone number" when he was at her home investigating a domestic dispute. She says the police department actively discouraged her from filing a report, so out of frustration, she began to record the conversations on her phone. Although the case initially received national media coverage, attention has since died down as 21-year-old Moore awaits a trial date that continues to be pushed back.

Michael Allison  is another Illinois resident facing the wrath of the eavesdropping law. The 41-year-old mechanic from Bridgeport faces four counts of violating the eavesdropping law, which adds up to a possible 75-year sentence. Allison believed the local police were harassing him in retaliation for a lawsuit he'd filed against the city over a local zoning ordinance, so he began to record his conversations with them.

Allison was eventually charged with violating the zoning ordinance. When he was told there would be no record of his trial, he informed court officials that he would record his trial with a digital recorder. This prompted the judge to have him arrested on the day of his trial, for violating her right to privacy. After confiscating Allison's digital recorder, the police found the recordings between Allison and the cops.

Christopher Drew , a 60-year-old artist, is also being prosecuted for violating the eavesdropping law. Drew was arrested in late 2009 for selling art on the street in Chicago without a permit. He recorded the incident, and now faces a15 year sentence for recording his own arrest.

These are just a handful of cases that illustrate the danger that comes with recording police in public. Carlos Miller , a journalist who has been arrested twice for photographing the police, has documented hundreds of similar cases on his blog,  Photography is Not a Crime .

What Do the Police Think?

In the most comprehensive article to date about recording the police —"  The War on Cameras " — Radley Balko interviewed James Pasco, executive director of the national  Fraternal Order of Police  (FOP), which describes itself as "the world's largest organization of sworn law enforcement officers." Pasco argues that videotaping police officers in public should be illegal because it can intimidate officers from doing their jobs. Mark Donahue, president of FOP, concurs, telling the  New York Times  that his organization “absolutely supports” the eavesdropping act and was relieved that the ACLU's challenge filed last year failed, adding that recording on-duty police officers “can affect how an officer does his job on the street.”

Police officers are not a monolith , so while there are many, like Pasco and Donahue, who support these laws, there are also many who doubtless oppose them. At the same time, police apprehension about being videotaped on the job is understandable, especially with the advancement in cell-phone technology increasing at record speed. Some also worry that their actions will be preserved and used against them in ways that weren't possible just a few years ago, while others are simply uncomfortable being videotaped.