By Jamey Dunn
Illinoisans who record police officers on the job can face felony charges with a penalty of more than a decade in prison, but that could change under a bill approved by a House committee today.
Currently, making an audio recording of a police officer at work without his or her permission violates the state’s eavesdropping law.
House Bill 3944 would create an exemption allowing people to tape law enforcement officers on duty on public property. “Right now, if a citizen does that, it’s a Class 1 felony carrying the potential for a 15-year penalty,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Democrat from Northbrook who sponsored the bill. “And citizens are being charged under the current law for doing nothing more than what thousands of citizens do every day in Illinois and what we all do, which is to pull out our cell phone, open up our camera and start recording.”
Nekritz called her bill “a very narrow exemption designed to deal with a very specific concern.” She hopes to pass the legislation, which would become effective immediately after being signed into law, before the upcoming NATO and G8 summits, which are scheduled to be held in Chicago this May. Thousands of protesters and journalists are expected to visit the city for the conference, and Nekritz said the concern is that people will be slapped with felony charges for taping police action that could potentially take place at protests or elsewhere. She said many people are unaware that making such recordings are against the law.
Proponents of the bill say it brings the law up to date with new technology. “This is a good policy because of the reality of the world that we live in. The law was originally passed decades ago when we had very little means of communication, compared to today when we carry cell phones with cameras, cell phones with video cameras with sound capability,”said Robert Loeb, a criminal defense attorney speaking on behalf of the Illinois State Bar Association.
While the bill passed easily through the House Civil Law Committee on a 9 to 2 vote, lawmakers who voted in favor of it said they were concerned about the definition of a public place in the measure. Under Nekritz’s proposal, the definition would be drawn from existing laws. Nekritz gave the example that the lobby of a policy station would be a public place while an interrogation room would not be. Under the measure, people in their own homes would not be allowed to record police.
Patrick Coughlin, deputy chief of the Cook County state’s attorney’s narcotics bureau, said that it would be difficult for citizens to know which places are considered public and which aren’t. Her said the bill could actually lead to more arrests because it might give people the false sense that they can record police anywhere.
Coughlin said that the state’s eavesdropping statute is facing multiple court challenges, and he urged lawmakers to wait until judges rule on the underlying law. “You’re simply adding to the maze, which is the Illinois eavesdropping exemption law … rather than fixing the problem,” he said. Coughlin said the law should be changed to single party consent, meaning that one person in a conversation can record it without permission from the other person. However, when asked by lawmakers if the state’s attorney’s office would put a hold on charging and prosecuting violators until the courts rule, Coughlin said no. “Right now, the law is presumed to be valid,” he said.
Coughlin said that Nekritz's bill would allow bystanders to record police conversations with witnesses and victims without consent and could interfere with police actions.
Peter Baroni, a lawyer and public policy consultant for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, agreed. “It would have a suppressive affect on anonymous witnesses who wish to give information.”
Baroni called the proposal “overly burdensome” to police and said that it “singles out” law enforcement.
He added that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. “The fact that people don’t know that this is illegal rings a little less than straight,’ he said. “The fact that people may not be aware of this is not a valid point in terms of its enforcement.”
However, some lawmakers said they weren’t aware of the law. “I was astounded to know that we’ve had such a law on the books. I really was,” said Rep. Dwight Kay, a Glen Carbon Republican, who voted in favor of the bill.