Illinois Criminalizes Citizen Journalism
Leave it to the Illinois General Assembly to do the wrong thing again. This week they voted down House Bill 3944, a bill to amend the state's brutally antiquated Eavesdropping Act. The Illinois Eavesdropping Act makes it a Class 1 Felony that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison if you record police officers on duty (as well as some other state officials, such as judges, state's attorneys, etc.).
Earlier this month, Judge Stanley Sacks, assigned to the Criminal Courts Building in Cook County, became the second county judge to recently rule the law unconstitutional. However, that in addition to the recent acquittals of Illinois residents Tiwanda Moore and Michael Allison who violated the act, was not good enough to convince 59 representatives in the Illinois House. Only 45 voted in favor it.
The amendment would have modified the exemptions under the current act to allow citizens to record police on public duty on public property. It states:
A person who is not a law enforcement officer acting at the direction of a law enforcement officer may record the conversation of a law enforcement officer who is performing a public duty in a public place and any other person who is having a conversation with that law enforcement officer if the conversation is at a volume audible to the unassisted ear of the person who is making the recording. For purposes of this subsection (q), "public place" means any place to which the public has access and includes, but is not limited to, streets, sidewalks, parks, and highways (including inside motor vehicles), and the common areas of public and private facilities and buildings.
Pretty straightforward, right?
So why would some in the legislature want to strike down this bill--especially after two judges ruled the law unconstitutional? Let's look at what some of our representatives had to say.
The State Journal Register, listed three Illinois Republicans that opposed the bill. Rep. Jim Sacia, a Republican from Freeport, IL, said "the bill opens the possibility for citizens to alter audio recordings of interactions with police to make them look bad."
But does it? Sure, video could be altered, if a citizen really wanted to bust a cop badly enough who wasn't really doing anything wrong--yes, they could probably alter the video.
But are we really unable to decipher when a video has been altered or not? If an officer was suspected of committing a crime he did not commit, that only altered video could prove, is it likely that the officer would be penalized? This sounds a little like the flawed reasoning so commonly used by those who are actually caught doing something wrong. They attempt to discredit the video evidence that proves their guilt by claiming it was "selectively edited," whether it was or was not, and regardless of truth contained in that recording.
Perhaps editing video should be a crime too?
Another Republican, Jim Watson, said “We should not be creating an atmosphere where people enter this ‘got you’ mode and try to tape law enforcement, trying to catch them (doing things)."
Really? We shouldn't? We shouldn't be trying to catch law enforcement "doing things?" Maybe not, but what if they are breaking laws? Shouldn't we be "trying" to catch that?
If innocent, law-abiding citizens are subject to being charged with criminal activity for catching law enforcement officers committing criminal activities, whether or not those citizens initially set out to "catch them" or not, what protection is there, other than relying on other law enforcement?
In these situations, do those "other law enforcement" not have any potential of being just as corrupt as the officers committing the offenses?
Perhaps the most "brilliant" reasoning by a Republican who opposed this bill was from Rep. Dennis Reboletti of Elmhurst. He said “Why should [the police] have to go get a court order to record these people when these people can record them?” If Rep. Reboletti understood the law he voted to not amend, he would know this is simply not true.
Law enforcement is required to get a warrant both to search your home as well as to use wiretapping equipment to listen to and record your conversations. But they do not need one to record you in public. In fact, current Illinois law explicitly spells out all the instances in which law enforcement officers need no warrant or permission whatsoever to record citizens. Nor is law enforcement required to disclose it in those circumstances, either.
The failed amendment simply tried to place law-abiding citizens on an equal playing field with corrupt law enforcement officers.
One individual opposed to the law who actually has a point is deputy chief of Cook County state's attorney's narcotics bureau, Patrick Coughlin. According to Coughlin, "....it would be difficult for citizens to know which places are considered public and which aren’t....it might give people the false sense that they can record police anywhere....You’re simply adding to the maze, which is the Illinois eavesdropping exemption law.…rather than fixing the problem...."
All these things are very possible and true, to which Coughlin may have the best solution, which is undoing the Illinois Eavesdropping Act all together, and making Illinois a single party consent state--like 38 others--where one person having a conversation can record it without the other person's consent.