Online Staff Report
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Des Plaines, has introduced a bill that would make it legal for citizens to record police officers performing their public duties in public places.
A similar bill (H.B. 3944) failed last month after police organizations raised concerns that altered recordings might be used to file administrative complaints against police officers.
Nekritz said that issue has been addressed in Senate Bill 1808 with language directing any audio recording that alleges wrongdoing by a police officer to the state’s attorney for review if it has been intentionally altered to inaccurately reflect the incident.
Additionally, she noted there are several existing laws that could be used to prosecute the intentional misrepresentation of a recording.
Illinois law already allows citizens to videotape in public places, but audio recording without both parties’ consent is a class 1 felony.
“The law has not kept up with technology,” Nekritz said. “The ubiquitous cell phone now puts everyone at risk of being a felon.”
There have been several instances in Illinois where citizens were arrested for recording police officers suspected of wrongdoing. In two of those cases, including one in Cook County, the felony charge of recording was declared unconstitutional. Yet, the threat of arrest still exists in Chicago.
Some police leaders have praised the bill as being useful in proving the innocence of police officers. Others have said the bill should allow more leeway for police to audio record citizens.
“There are already nine exemptions to the Eavesdropping Act that allow officers to record citizens without a warrant,” said Josh Sharp, government relations director of the Illinois Press Association, which supports the bill. “The score today is Police — 9, Citizens — 0.”
He added that the state can ill-afford the lawsuits likely to follow prosecutions under Illinois’ existing eavesdropping law. A recent case in Boston involved Simon Glik, an attorney who will receive a $170,000 settlement from the City of Boston, stemming from his 2007 arrest for recording police in a public park.
“What will that verdict be in Chicago where the law has already been declared unconstitutional?” Sharp asked.
Nekritz expressed a need to preserve the privacy rights of citizens while allowing them to help hold police officers accountable.
“Police can go get a warrant,” she said of law enforcement’s needs for surveillance. “That’s why we have a constitution.”
She added that “citizens are all for this. Only law enforcement and their lobbyists think this is a bad deal.”
Jim Covington, director of legislative affairs for the Illinois State Bar Association, said, “The eavesdropping law should be a shield and not a sword.” He added it should provide “reasonable protection of privacy” while protecting the integrity of the First Amendment.
The American Civil Liberties Union expressed support for the Nekritz bill.
Mary Dixon, legislative director for the ACLU, said, “It is not acceptable that people in Illinois, including ACLU staff doing police oversight work, face prison time for using smart phones to audiotape police engaged in public activity in public places.”
Stephen Franklin, president of the Chicago Headline Club, a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, added, “Any effort that decriminalizes and removes a threat to journalists doing legitimate work is a benefit to all journalists in Illinois.” He said his group “has long opposed this [current] law, which is unique to Illinois and unhelpful in the gathering of information.”
Sharp noted that the current law hinders reporters from doing their jobs but also makes it impossible to use citizen-supplied recordings of suspected police abuse on their websites.
“You can have the recording in your hands and see what’s going on right in front of you, but you can’t share that with your audience? In the most free country on Earth? That’s hard to believe, but that’s the law in Illinois today.”
The Illinois Press Association in Springfield represents the interests of nearly 400 daily and weekly newspapers. The Rock River Times is a member of the association.
Posted April 30, 2012