Courts upholding right to film police

When one hears the term wiretapping, normally one thinks of secretly recording phone calls of others; some may have thoughts of Watergate. However, under some crafty interpretations of the legal definition of wiretapping, several people have found themselves as suspects of this offense for filming their encounters with public officials. Most people familiar with the Free State Project are aware that Pete Eyre and Adam Mueller (aka Ademo Freeman) were recently acquitted of the felony wiretapping charges in Massachusetts. Some people may even be aware that the 1st Circuit Court ruled that filming public officials while on duty is a “basic and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.”

While the 1st Circuit Court ruling only applies to the States that are part of that Court’s jurisdiction, it was cited by a judge in Illinois as a “pervasive authority” for ruling on similar cases.

Specifically the case of an Illinois man, Michael Allison, who was recently convicted of five counts of felony eavesdropping and sentenced to 75 years in prison. The Illinois law makes it a felony to record a conversation without consent of ALL parties involved, regardless of the circumstances. Allison’s troubles began when he recorded his encounters with police who were seizing cars from his front yard. Allison then attempted to record his court appearance and was arrested for supposedly violating the Judge’s privacy.

There is good news for Mr. Allison — another Judge (David Frankland) dismissed the charges against Michael Allison and ruled, “A statute intended to prevent unwarranted intrusion into a citizen’s privacy cannot be used as a shield for public officials who cannot assert a comparable right to privacy in their public duties… Such action impedes the free flow of information concerning public officials and violates the First Amendment right to gather information.”

Additionally, the ACLU is challenging the Illinois law in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, with the court expected to issue a decision in the next month. And a Chicago jury recently acquitted a woman for secretly recording a conversation with police regarding a sexual harassment complaint she was attempting to file against the department.

It seems police officers have no issues if they are filmed during parades or doing something good, such as getting a kitten out of a tree; it’s only when the officer is being “less than cordial” that it becomes an issue. Why should someone film a police encounter? Doing so, and presenting the film as evidence during his trial, helped Dave Ridley win an acquittal after being charged with trespassing — at a public event in New Hampshire.

It’s good to see courts, and juries, recognizing the fact that filming cops is not a crime. I encourage everyone to carry a camera (or two) just in case the need arises to film an encounter with a “public servant.” You may be able to hold them accountable, and possibly protect yourself from jail.

4 Comments
  1. If you live in NYC and value your rights to record, you better get down to Wall Street and be part of things *now*. This has become a major flashpoint and doing nothing will only embolden your NYPD captors.

  2. Thanks for helping to get more eyes on this important issue. Fortunately it’s one that isn’t too hard a sell for most people – if an individual purports to work for “the public” their actions should be transparent.

    At our case in Greenfield, MA one juror noted in a post-verdict interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkfVSsBSVDY) that it was the existence of the video that made all the difference.

  3. Michael Allison was not convicted, only charged, with five felony counts of wiretapping.  What made his case unique was that it was the first time that such charges were not dropped for filming police.  Rather, the county prosecutor and event the assistant DA for the state of Illinois moved forward with the charges.  However, the charges were rejected by the judge as unconstitutional three days ago, on 9/20/11.