Tuesday, May 22, 2012

House approves change to eavesdropping law

By Jamey Dunn 

The Illinois House today approved a bill that supporters say would bring the state's eavesdropping law in line with modern technology.

Senate Bill 1808 would allow people to make audio recordings of police officers who are on duty and in public. Currently, making such a recording without permission is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The 7th Circuit U.S. Courts of Appeals recently barred enforcement of the law as the court takes up a related case, and a preliminary ruling from the court said that it was likely unconstitutional. Other Illinois courts have ruled that the law is unconstitutional.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who sponsors the bill, said that these rulings provide lawmakers with an even more “compelling” reason to change the law. Nekritz made a failed attempt to pass another version of the plan earlier in the legislative session before the 7th Circuit Court issued its injunction. “So now we have three Illinois courts telling us: ‘Illinois General Assembly, your statue is unconstitutional. You need to make changes.’”

This new version of the plan includes a provision that Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, said she hopes will ease concerns from some law enforcement officials. The measure would bar using an edited recording to file a complaint against an officer. Nekritz said if a doctored recording were used for a complaint, the issue would be referred to a state’s attorney, who would decide whether the offense warranted a felony or misdemeanor charge.

But opponents said the proposal could endanger officers, police investigations and the people trying to make recordings. “I think it’s a liability and a safety issue,” said Democratic Rep. Dena Carli, who is also a Chicago Police sergeant. She said she was concerned that police might mistake somebody pulling out a cell phone to record as somebody pulling out a weapon. Carli said she was worried that people trying to record a situation might get in the way of police because they would have to get close to pick up sound on a recording device. Such crowding could interfere with police work, such as interviewing witnesses at a crime scene. “Video from a distance, that’s fine. You can pick up that video. In order to get that audio, you have to come into close proximity. It’s endangering everybody in that situation.” The current law allows video recording without audio.

Nekritz said that all the laws police currently use to keep people from obstructing their work would still apply, and anyone who interferes with police action would be subject to arrest under such laws.

Supporters of the bill said that it would catch the state law up to address the widespread use of many devices, such as cell phones, that can record audio and video. They say under the current law, people are committing felonies without knowing it simply by doing something that has become a force of habit for many — whipping out a camera phone and recording anything of interest they may see.

“This is a bill whose time has come,” Nekritz said. “I think many of us watched the goings on in downtown Chicago over the weekend with the NATO summit. And you could see the crowds, the police lines, and you could see kids and people with their cell phones held up recording what was going on. … No one would think that that’s really a felony. It’s time we modernize our law and make it consistent with what people expect today.”

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