Illinois law would make recording the police a felony

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In a supposedly free country, is it alright to make it a felony to film the police?  Welcome to Illinois.

In a mind blowing move, the Illinois House and Senate passed legislation making it a crime to record any “private conversations,” particularly conversations with police or any government officials.  Really?

In a vote that wasn’t even close—106-7 in the state House and 46-4-1 in the Senate—both sides of the aisle got together to put together one unconstitutional piece of legislation.  And they slipped it into an existing, unrelated bill, because when you’re a lawmaker and you don’t want people, including the public but also your own colleagues, to know about something like this, you hide it in something else.

This law, which is awaiting outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature should he decide to make the mistake, would forbid people from recording conversations without permission when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Recording conversations with police, an attorney general or assistant attorney general, state’s attorney or assistant state’s attorney or judge would be a class 3 felony, with a sentence of two to four years in prison. Moreover, for reasons that are uncertain except that they really don’t want you to record the cops, illegally taping an ordinary citizen becomes a class 4 felony, with a punishment of one to three years behind bars.

The Illinois Policy Institute notes that this is the second attempt by the state legislature to pass atrocious First Amendment-killing legislation.  Earlier this year, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned a state eavesdropping law, which criminalized the recording of public officials without permission, even as they were performing their public duties.  The court noted the law was too broad, did not distinguish between open and secret recordings, and burdened far more speech than was necessary.  So, the law violated the constitutional right of people recording in public places.

And the second time around, this latest creation coming from the state legislature is not much better than the old one.  But you should focus your attention on the key part of this bill, which forbids the recording of a “private conversation” where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”  Now, who knows for certain what constitutes a public or a private conversation, or whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in any given situation?

Any first year law student knows that a law such as this which is overly broad and vague will be thrown out.  Presumably, there are lawyers who members of the Illinois House and Senate, as was President Obama before he packed up and headed to the White House.  But even so, surely there were lawyers working in the General Assembly who could have counseled these lawmakers.

Given the uncertainty as to whether one is really breaking the law when recording in public, the point of this law is to discourage any filming of the police—by the press or by public citizens.  This comes at a time when police brutality is once again on the radar screen, with the videotaped killings of black men and boys such as Eric Garner, 43, who was choked to death for selling 75 cent loosie cigarettes in Staten Island, New York, John Crawford, III, 22, for handling a BB air gun for sale at a Beavercreek, Ohio Walmart, and Tamir Rice, 12, for playing with a toy gun in Cleveland.

Police are public servants who are supposed to be accountable to the public, who are hired to protect and serve the citizens.  But that is not always the case, and Illinois has a bad record when it comes to police corruption, malfeasance and abuse.

How ironic, or fitting, that this new bill was sent to the governor’s desk last week on December 4.  On December 4, 1969—45 years ago—the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office conspired with the Chicago police and the FBI to assassinate Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and Black Panther leader Mark Clark.  Certainly, at least some of the 30 members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus remember this date and its significance.

Hampton, only 21, was murdered in his bed as police raided his apartment and fired 82 to 99 shots over the course of seven minutes.  Hampton, who was rising to national prominence and had a reputation for superior leadership and communication skills, had crafted a truce among Chicago’s major street gangs.  And the Panthers, of course, were formed in no small measure due to the plague of police brutality and the need for community policing of the police.

The Chicago police raid on the Panthers and the murder of Fred Hampton was part of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program, designed to eliminate black messiahs.  This is an example of what happens when the government and law enforcement are able to operate in secrecy and away from public scrutiny.

But it didn’t end there.  Between 1972 and 1991, Chicago police under the direction of Commander Jon Burge tortured more than 100 people, all black men.  Suspects were beaten into forced confessions, given electric shock treatment, threatened with execution and bags placed over their heads, according to Amnesty International.  Many of these men found themselves on death row or with long-term prison time as a result.  Meanwhile, Burge was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, and was recently released from prison into a halfway house.

As Burge was able to keep his $54,000 per year pension, 100 of his victims are still behind bars without freedom or reparations.  16 men were exonerated.  This, as Chicago spent over $100 million defensing Burge and his partners in crime in blue.  Once again, this is what happens when crooked police are able to do what they do and no one is watching, with no cameras around.

Finally, remember that only one person was indicted in the aftermath of the killing of Eric Garner in New York. Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the entire chokehold incident, was arrested on weapons charges, and his wife Chrissie arrested on assault charges, apparently an act of revenge by the police.  The Ortas said the police have been harassing them over the Eric Garner video.

With this Illinois law, potentially everyone in the state could become a Ramsey Orta.  Recording the police is not a crime, but in this case the law is the crime.  First Amendment? What’s that?

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove