One law for them, another for us: is it illegal to record the police on the job?

In Reason magazine, Radley Balko takes an in-depth look at all the places in the USA where it's nominally illegal to record the police, and all the people who've faced fines or prison for recording law enforcement officers breaking the law with illegal beatings and harassment. High courts at the state and federal level are pretty consistent in ruling that privacy rules don't protect cops who are, say, beating someone up in an alley or waving their guns around at a roadside stop, but this doesn't prevent cops and prosecutors from dragging people who record law enforcement misdeeds through the criminal justice system.

The second incident came on April 13, about the same time McKenna's case began to make national news. Maryland State Trooper David Uhler pulled over motorcyclist Anthony Graber for speeding and reckless driving. Graber had a video camera mounted to his helmet that was recording at the time of the stop. Uhler, dressed in street clothes, emerged from his unmarked car with gun drawn, yelling. Graber was given only a traffic ticket, but he was miffed at Uhler's behavior. So he posted the video on YouTube. Days later, Maryland State Police conducted an early-morning raid on Graber's home, held Graber and his parents for 90 minutes, confiscated computer equipment, arrested him, and took him to jail.

Graber was charged with two felonies. The first was violating Maryland's wiretapping law by recording Uhler without the trooper's consent. The second was "possession of an intercept device," a provision in the same law that was intended for bugs and wiretaps but in this case referred to Graber's video camera, a device that is perfectly legal to own and use in just about any other context. Thanks to legislation written to prevent the surreptitious interception of communications, Graber faced up to 16 years in prison for recording a cop during a public traffic stop.

Wiretapping statutes apply to audio recordings, with or without video. Maryland is one of 12 states with a wiretapping law that requires consent from all parties to a conversation for someone to legally record it. But in 10 of those 12 states, including Maryland, the statute says a violation occurs only when the offended party has a reasonable expectation that the conversation is private. This privacy provision prevents people who record public meetings or inadvertently pick up conversations while shooting video in public from accidentally committing felonies. Civil liberties advocates argue that on-duty police officers, like people attending city council meetings or walking down a public street, do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. For Graber to be convicted under Maryland's wiretapping law, a prosecutor would have to argue that Uhler--a police officer who had pulled over a motorist, drawn his gun, and yelled at the guy on the side of a busy highway--had a reasonable expectation that the encounter would remain private.

The War on Cameras

(via /.)