Court OKs Recording Cops in Illinois

Posted May 30, 2012 in Criminal Law by Courtney Sherwood

Despite claims by Illinois police that an anti-eavesdropping law makes it illegal to record them in public, residents of the state can, in fact, make video and audio recordings of the cops, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled.

The ruling came at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had plans to record Chicago-area police, and which sought a court ruling that doing so would be OK despite an Illinois law that prohibits taping a conversation without all parties’ consent.

“In order to make the rights of free expression and petition effective, individuals and organizations must be able to freely gather and record information about the conduct of government and their agents – especially the police,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois. “The advent and widespread accessibility of new technologies make the recording and dissemination of pictures and sound inexpensive, efficient and easy to accomplish. Empowering individuals and organizations in this fashion will ensure additional transparency and oversight of police across the state.”

At least 24 states place some limits on recording, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and 12 specifically require people to obtain consent before taping interactions with the police – at least if those interactions are not in public. Illinois has one of the most extreme limits written into law, and prior to this month’s ruling people who recorded cops in public could face up to 10 years in prison.

Harvey Grossman

“The Illinois eavesdropping statute restricts far more speech than necessary to protect legitimate privacy interests; as applied to the facts alleged here, it likely violates the First Amendment’s free speech and free-press guarantees,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote in the 2-1 ruling, which could be appealed to the full Seventh Circuit Court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Courts have consistently upheld a First Amendment right to photograph police activity, but the rapid spread of smartphones has forced states to grapple with how to best balance individuals’ rights not to be taped without consent against the public’s interest in monitoring police activities.

The Illinois ruling is just the latest affirmation that private citizens can tape law enforcement activities, despite restrictions that might otherwise affect recordings. In August 2011, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Boston lawyer who’d stopped to shoot cellphone video of a public arrest was within his rights, and that Boston police were in violation of the First Amendment when they arrested the man with the camera. And in 2010, a Maryland circuit court judge tossed felony wiretap charges filed against a man who recorded himself receiving a ticket. In Baltimore, police have since opted to allow videographers to film them without challenge, even as some jurisdictions in the state continue to ban the practice.

Criminal Law Newsletter

Get the free Criminal Law Newsletter. Subscribe Today

Illinois lawmakers are now considering changes to state statute to reflect the recent ruling there, though it’s not clear if the political will exists to revise the law.

Meanwhile, ACLU chapters continue to monitor evolving laws around the U.S. and push for changes to protect the act of recording cops in public.

See police activity and not sure if it’s OK to record? Here’s the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press state-by-state guide to recording law.

Click for tips on how to tape respectfully and avoid trouble with police.

Should citizens be banned from recording police activity in a public place? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Tagged as: , , , , , , , ,