Privacy should not be expected by police

When citizens are taken off the street for nothing more than recording a police officer performing their public duty, it ought to raise more than a few eyebrows.

It turns out that Illinois law goes out of its way to prevent recording of public officials. The Illinois Eavesdropping Act says audio recording is only permitted when all parties consent to the recording. Recording another without their consent is a Class 4 felony, carrying one to three years in prison. But turn your recorder towards police? You may find yourself charged with a Class 1 Felony, which can carry up to 15 years in prison.

Illinois is one of just three U.S. states that bring charges against individuals recording police in the open. But Illinois’ harsh measures against those interested in keeping an eye on law enforcement appear to be wearing down when these show up in an actual court of law.

Last month, a jury acquitted a woman who recorded Chicago police investigators when they tried to compel her to drop a sexual harassment complaint against an officer, whom she claims groped her.

On Sept. 15, Illinois Circuit Judge David Frankland wouldn’t even allow the case against Michael Allison, of Robinson, Ill., to reach a jury.

Allison faced up to 75 years in prison for five counts of felony eavesdropping, but can now walk free, after Frankland said the eavesdropping statute “impedes the free flow of information concerning public officials and violates the First Amendment right to gather such information.”

But on Sept. 13, a senior Seventh Circuit judge, Richard Posner, currently hearing another wiretapping case brought forward by the American Civil Liberties Union, reminded us that free speech still has its opponents.

“Once all this stuff can be recorded, there’s going to be a lot more of this snooping around, by, you know, reporters and bloggers,” Posner said Tuesday.

“Yes, it is a bad thing,” Posner said. “There is such a thing as privacy.”

We are heartened that Illinoisans have not been convicted under this restrictive law, but even in the lack of convictions, the eavesdropping statute exacts an unseen price.

Absent are the headlines detailing the stories of citizens taking a plea bargain rather than face the possibility of 15 years behind bars. Even harder to capture are those refraining from recording police for fear of being arrested. It’s hard to know how often instances of this have occurred.

While in uniform, police officers cannot use privacy as a defense against public scrutiny, because as public servants, they have made an implicit agreement to allow that scrutiny on the job.

This form of expression must be something the state of Illinois protects.