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Guest Column: State eavesdropping law struck down … is Illinois becoming progressive?

March 26, 2014

By Richard S. Gubbe

Illinois as a progressive state? Really? After enacting medical marijuana and concealed carry laws, Illinois has taken another step to uphold the rights of individuals. The Illinois Supreme Court recorded over the eavesdropping law last week, which was one of the strictest in the country that made the recording of anyone by audio, including law enforcement officials in public, illegal without consent.

The state high court struck down Illinois’ 50-year-old eavesdropping law, which prohibited citizens from making audio recordings of conversations without first getting permission from all parties. Under the law, recording a conversation involving a cop was a Class 1 felony, which also included a possible 15-year prison term.

The law criminalized recording conversations “that cannot be deemed private,” such as a loud street argument, a political debate on a college campus and screaming fans at an athletic event, among other scenarios, the court said.

None of these examples implicate privacy interests, yet the statute makes it a felony to audio record each one,” Chief Justice Rita Garman wrote for the court.

Last Thursday’s (March 20) rulings upheld lower court decisions that dismissed two cases. In one, a woman was charged with eavesdropping for recording phone conversations with a Cook County administrator over the policy of correcting court transcripts.

In the other case, a man was charged with eavesdropping for recording a conversation among himself, a judge and an attorney without consent during a child support matter.

Justice Robert Thomas referred to the “overbreadth of the statute” at a hearing in January and said it seemed to make it a crime to record a “shouting match at a baseball game” and post it on YouTube.

One of the cases brought before the court involved Annabel Melongo, who recorded three phone calls she had with a court reporter supervisor at the George Leighton Criminal Courts complex. Melongo called to correct an apparent error in a court transcript, then posted audio of the phone calls on her website to publicize her computer-tampering case. Prosecutors charged her with six counts of eavesdropping in 2010, and she spent more than 20 months in jail after she couldn’t post bail.

The jury deadlocked at the trial, but her attorneys filed a motion arguing that the Illinois Eavesdropping Act was unconstitutional. In 2012, Judge Steven J. Goebel agreed, dismissing the charges, and prosecutors filed an appeal.

Judges in Kane and Cook counties declared the eavesdropping law unconstitutional, and the two cases went before the state Supreme Court.

During arguments before the state Supreme Court, Melongo’s attorney said the law gave government officials the power to suppress First Amendment rights.

It gives government officials and public actors unilateral and unfettered right to deny the press or citizens the right to record, gather information and disseminate information about the government,” Melongo’s attorney, Gabriel Platkin, said.

Also following suit, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois was challenging the law in federal court. The ACLU was seeking to record law enforcement officials on the job as part of its long-standing police accountability program. The ACLU said the law violated the First Amendment, and its protection of free discussion of government activities. A federal appellate court said that argument would likely prevail at trial, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal.

That’s three law changes that have occurred in the past year that give back individual rights. Medical marijuana grants the right for those in pain to seek out help from marijuana plants, and the concealed carry law was created to make Illinois the 50th state to allow qualified individuals the right to carry a concealed weapon.

From the March 26-April 1, 2014, issue

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