Today’s story is on this article from the Washington Post , published on June 16th.
The basic premise of the article is that in certain states filming Police Officers while they are on duty is illegal. And in one state, Maryland, the offenders are being actively prosecuted for that offense. The interesting, and potentially legally dangerous part of it though is the law by which they are prosecuting these private videographers; it is a wiretapping law from the 1970s.
Laws put in place to protect citizens from overbearing government snooping are now being used to prevent citizens from posting videos of public servants in action. I’m seeing the situational irony here.
Now Maryland and 11 other states, according to the article, require the consent of both parties involved for a taping to be legal. Virginia, and DC, as the article also states, only require one party to consent to the recording for it to be legal. The laws of VA and DC make it easy for the individual to record whatever they want in public, and be free of prosecution. Even when that recording is of Police Officers, something the police seem to have a problem with.
The article uses, as a backdrop for the issue, the story of Mr. Anthony Graber, a 25-year old Staff Sergeant with the Maryland Air National Guard. He was riding his motorcycle down one of the highways with a helmet cam strapped on when this occurred:
From the driver’s side emerged a man in a gray pullover and jeans. The man, who was wielding a gun, repeatedly yelled at Graber, ordering him to get off his bike. Only then did Maryland State Trooper Joseph D. Uhler identify himself as “state police” and holster his weapon. Graber, who’d been observed popping a wheelie while speeding, was cited for doing 80 in a 65 mph zone. Graber accepted his ticket, which he says he deserved.
Youtube has the video available (skip to 2:57 to see the event):
You can see from the video that the officer leaves his car with gun drawn. My question is why did he have his gun drawn? He was pulling over a motorcyclist, not entering a firefight.
The important fact also is that it is only the audio recording which is considered illegal under the law here, not the video, which is more damning.
Mr. Graber thought (rightfully so) that this was a bit excessive. So, he posted the video, complete with audio, to youtube. Then this:
On April 8, Graber was awakened by six officers raiding his parents’ home in Abingdon, Md., where he lived with his wife and two young children. He learned later that prosecutors had obtained a grand jury indictment alleging he had violated state wiretap laws by recording the trooper without his consent.
If your reaction was a bit on the ‘what?’ side of things, you’re on the right track. What happened right there was Maryland invoking a wiretapping law meant to protect citizens from the government recording them without their permission being turned on its head and applying that same law against the citizens it was meant to protect. This is especially worry-some when you consider this:
The frequency of such arrests has picked up with the spread of portable video cameras and the proliferation of videos showing alleged police misconduct on the Web.
If that statement is indeed true, then it is troubling. Instead of owning up to alleged or real police misconduct, governments are instead prosecuting those who tape the issues while they occur. We expect our police officers to protect us all, equally and according to law, but it seems when the police officers break the law, or are over-zealous in their execution of duty, the state would rather ignore the problem and put away the person who brought it to light.
An additional issue here is the use of dash cams in police cars. Many police departments employ these cams to film the officers while on duty to ensure no misconduct happens. Are citizens taping officers that much different? Are they subject to different rules? It makes no sense to me why one is allowed and the other illegal. It also make no sense to me why the state would be eager to prosecute those who tape the police acting in an unbefitting manner.
Also, if any person uses a video recorded by a private citizen to defend themselves in a court of law when police misconduct did occur, the video evidence may be rendered inadmissible if the videographer is convicted. This has rather dire implications for criminal and civil defense cases where video evidence is involved.
Now, all of the above is not a problem in the 39 states where it is only required to have the consent of one to record an event, but in the other 11, the above mentioned problems are very real.
A judge could still dismiss the case against Graber at a hearing scheduled for October. But Rocah said it might be too late because “the message of intimidation has already been sent.”
It is an issue the courts should mull over very carefully, as the wrong decision here could prove disastrous for both civil rights and government accountability.
Some youtube videos which proved historic in highlighting police misconduct:
Those are some of the more famous incidents. My verdict: allowing private citizens to tape, both audio and video, of police officers in necessary to preserve freedom and security.