Monday, March 26, 2012

Terrible arguments in favor of Illinois's "wiretapping" statute

Illinois's unconstitutional "wiretapping" statute makes it a felony to make an audio recording of police officers going about their business in public spaces. A bill had been pending in the legislature to fix this before the Illinois Supreme Court gets around to it. That bill, however, has been killed.

The State Journal-Register article quotes three legislators making three different arguments against the bill. Each of the arguments is ridiculous.

Ridiculous argument #1:  Representative Jim Watson, one of the opponents of the bill, had this to say:
Why should [the police] have to go get a court order to record these people when these people can record them?
This is just hogwash. Police have every right to record the activities of citizens going about their business in public. And they do so all the time. For example, as Radley Balko points out, many cops are equipped with microphones during arrests. No warrant required.

Ridiculous argument #2: Representative Jim Scacia says that the bill opens the possibility for citizens to alter audio recordings of interactions with police to make them look bad. If that's truly a concern, here's an idea: make it a felony to alter audio recordings of interactions with police to make them "look bad." My guess is that if there were such a law it would never be enforced because this never actually happens. Making audio recordings of police officers is perfectly legal in most states. You have not missed the scandal of altered, make-cops-look-bad audio recordings in those states. It doesn't exist.

Ridiculous argument #3: Representative Dennis Reboletti says,
We should not be creating an atmosphere where people enter this ‘got you’ mode and try to tape law enforcement, trying to catch them (doing things).
Hmm. A lot of people think that people behave better when they're being monitored. That's part of the point of police departments, in fact. And in a state like Illinois, which has a horrid history of corruption and torture by police, you might think that some "gotcha" citizen reportage might be welcomed.

But even if you accept Mr. Reboletti's dubious premise that citizen recordings of police officers should be discouraged, it doesn't follow that such conduct should be criminalized and made a felony. For example, the goal of discouraging gotcha recordings could be achieved by making these kinds of recordings inadmissible in court. You could even make the recordings contraband. These would be laws only a Nazi could be proud of (and I hate Illinois Nazis) but at least they would accomplish the stated goal without putting people in prison for pressing "record" while standing on the street corner.

In any event, Mr. Reboletti's argument is ultimately disingenuous because it is already legal to take pictures of and make video recordings of police officers "doing things" in public, as long as there is no audio. If the goal is to discourage an atmosphere where citizens can make a record of cops' public activities, there is no justification for this discrepancy.

All of this goes to show that the law is unconstitutional. No one can come up with a compelling state interest that this law is narrowly tailored to address. No one can even come up with a non-ridiculous argument. The law is a disgrace.

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