December 5, 2014
By Jacob Huebert, Bryant Jackson-Green

The Illinois General Assembly just passed a bill that would prevent citizens from recording the police.

Earlier this year, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down a state eavesdropping law that made it a crime for citizens to record conversations with police or anyone else without the other person’s permission. The court held that the old law “criminalize[d] a wide range of innocent conduct” and violated free-speech rights. In particular, the court noted the state could not criminalize recording activities where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, including citizens’ “public” encounters with police.

Now the old law is back, with just a few changes, in a new bill sent to the governor’s desk by the Illinois Senate on Dec. 4. The bill not only passed, but did so overwhelmingly with votes of 106-7 in the House on and 46-4-1 in the Senate.

The new version is nearly as bad as the old one.

Under the new bill, a citizen could rarely be sure whether recording any given conversation without permission is legal. The bill would make it a felony to surreptitiously record any “private conversation,” which it defines as any “oral communication between 2 or more persons,” where at least one person involved had a “reasonable expectation” of privacy.

When does the person you’re talking to have a reasonable expectation of privacy? The bill doesn’t say. And that’s not something an ordinary person can be expected to figure out.

A law must be clear enough for citizens to know in advance whether a particular action is a crime. This bill doesn’t meet that standard, which should be reason enough for a court to strike it down if it becomes law.

But lack of clarity isn’t the only problem with this bill.

Although it appears to be designed to accommodate the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the old law, the bill actually is designed to continue to prevent people from recording interactions with police.

The bill says it would only be a crime to record someone where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, which should mean that recording public encounters with police would not be a crime, and the old law’s fatal constitutional flaw would no longer exist.

But the bill doesn’t really fix the problem. Again, citizens can’t be expected to know for sure precisely which situations give rise to an “expectation of privacy” and which don’t. The Illinois Supreme Court said that police don’t have an expectation of privacy in “public” encounters with citizens, but it did not explain what counts as a “public” encounter. So if this bill becomes law, people who want to be sure to avoid jail time will refrain from recording police at all, and the law will therefore still effectively prevent people from recording police.

The bill would also discourage people from recording conversations with police by making unlawfully recording a conversation with police – or an attorney general, assistant attorney general, state’s attorney, assistant state’s attorney or judge – a class 3 felony, which carries a sentence of two to four years in prison. Meanwhile, the bill makes illegal recording of a private citizen a class 4 felony, which carries a lower sentencing range of one to three years in prison.

There’s only one apparent reason for imposing a higher penalty on people who record police in particular: to make people especially afraid to record police. That is not a legitimate purpose. And recent history suggests it’s important that people not be afraid to record police wherever they perform their duties so that officers will be more likely to respect citizens’ rights, and officers who do respect citizens’ rights will be able to prove it.

The bill might also provide an excuse to scuttle body cameras for police. Police may argue that using body cameras to record encounters with citizens outside of “public” places would violate the law, as citizens have not consented to being recorded.

Even if this bill were constitutional, it would still be unnecessary and a terrible idea. Most other states allow a person to record a conversation with only one party’s consent and don’t try to scare people out of recording police by threatening them with felony charges.

Despite its bipartisan support, Gov. Pat Quinn should do one more thing to bolster his legacy before he leaves office and veto this bill.

UPDATE: We should mention one more thing about this bill. It was introduced on Tuesday, Dec. 2, as an amendment to an existing bill on a completely different subject. The amendment removed all of the bill’s previous content and replaced it with the new ban on recording. The House passed it the following day, and the Senate passed it the day after that. So the people who would have cared most about this bill probably didn’t notice it in time to object. They might have had their attention focused on other issues that were in the news, such as the recorded police killing of Eric Garner.

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TAGS: criminal justice reform, eavesdropping, Illinois Supreme Court, police, recording