Local residents react to charges

By Ashley Johnson

Eavesdropping charges against two Champaign men have stirred controversy among community residents, who attended a press conference Friday at the Champaign Public Library.

CU Citizens for Peace held the conference on behalf of Martell Miller and Patrick Thompson.

The Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office charged Miller, 43, and Thompson, 35, with eavesdropping for the audio content in video recordings they made of on-duty Champaign and University police officers, said Police Chief R.T. Finney.

He said the issue is the audio content, not the videotape. People are allowed to videotape, but it is a violation of the Illinois eavesdropping statute to record someone’s voice without permission.

Nicole Lamers, VEYA member and University graduate student, said Miller was charged with two counts of eavesdropping on Aug. 23 in relation to the videotape officers confiscated after he recorded a traffic stop.

She said the footage was made into a documentary to be aired on Urbana Public Television (UPTV) on Aug. 25, but it was never aired. Police received the videotape from UPTV on Aug. 23 and Miller was charged with a third count as a result of the video, she said. Thompson was also charged based on that tape.

UPTV declined to comment.

Because police officers are involved, Miller’s action is a Class 1 felony punishable by probation or four to 15 years in prison.

Miller and Thompson are co-founders of Visionaries Educating Youth and Adults (VEYA), a group dedicated to preventing the incarceration of young black men. In May the group started Citizen’s Watch, a program to monitor police traffic stops. Lamers said the footage was filmed as part of a documentary intended to spark dialogue between the community and law enforcement.

Kimberlie Kranich, member of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, said the documentary was necessary because blacks and whites are often treated differently during traffic stops.

“If there’s a traffic stop, a white person is asked why they thought they were pulled over, and in the case of African-Americans, they are not treated the same. They are often asked to get out of the car and they may be asked to put their hands over their head,” she said.

Kranich said the men informed the city they would be observing the police before they started the project, but they never received a response.

City manager Steve Carter confirmed that VEYA wrote a letter to the police, the city mayor and himself stating that they planned to observe the police, but did not specifically say they would be videotaping traffic stops.

CU Citizens for Peace has consulted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois to discuss the constitutionality of the eavesdropping statute.

ACLU staff attorney Adam Schwartz said the organization believes the charges against Miller and Thompson should be dropped.

“The First Amendment protects the right of citizens to take videotapes of police officers doing their job in the public streets,” Schwartz said. “Our position is that the state eavesdropping statute, as applied to what Mr. Martell did, violates the First Amendment. This is about basic governmental accountability.”

Lamers said the charges are a petty enforcement of the law and dropping the charges would be the first step in achieving the group’s original goal.

“I’d like (the police) to come out and agree to help work on the community and the police relationship – because that was the whole point,” she said.