Legislation that would allow Illinois residents to record police officers was defeated in the Illinois House recently, but I find the reasoning given by those opposing the bill baffling.
“We should not be creating an atmosphere where people enter this ‘got you’ mode and try to tape law enforcement, trying to catch them (doing things),” Rep. Jim Watson, R-Jacksonville, said.
Really? First of all, isn’t “trying to catch (people doing things)” exactly what police officers are doing? So why is it OK for them to do it, but illegal for us to do it to them?
And correct me if I’m wrong here, but if they aren’t doing anything wrong, then what is the harm in allowing citizens to record his or her interaction with law enforcement personnel? Let’s say you get pulled over, for example. Even if you honestly have done nothing wrong, going to court is a gamble. In a he said/she said situation, the judge is almost always going to side with the cop, not the citizen ... unless there is some hard evidence to back up the citizen’s version of events.
And while we’d all like to believe every police officer is a person of honesty and integrity, as with every profession there are inevitably some bad apples. So when an officer engages in abuse of power, attempts to intimidate someone or outright lies, it seems only right the victim would be able to offer evidence in their own defense in a court of law.
Yet under current law, even if the audio recording proves the officer is at fault, it is the person who made the recording who faces jail time — quite a lot of it, in fact. He or she can be charged with a Class 1 felony, which carries up to 15 years in prison.
The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, rightly points out that, “Citizens are unfortunately being charged under this current law for doing nothing more than what we already do every day, which is to take out our cellphone, open up the camera, and start recording.”
Judges seem to agree with Nekritz. In recent months, judges in Cook County and Crawford County have declared the current law unconstitutional. So even if the state legislature fails to see the light on this issue, there is hope that the judicial system may step in and remedy the situation.
It’s also not like the police have never used a wiretap without the consent of both parties — just ask the now-imprisoned Rod Blagojevich, whose tape-recorded words were not only were used to convict him, they also went viral ... so much so that a number of those infamous calls are even available as free cellphone ringtones.
And if secretly taping the governor of Illinois was legal in the pursuit of truth and justice, shouldn’t that same standard be applied to others who seek to abuse their power over the public? Law enforcement officials are supposed to protect and serve, but when they seek to take advantage of the trust bestowed upon them, we should be entitled to expose the truth in their stead.
Amy Gehrt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.