Friday, August 26, 2011

When is a recording an intrusion?

I’m not sure what to think of all these devices people carry that are more than capable of recording those innocent and trivial moments that, if excepted in a certain way, can come across as incriminating – or embarrassing.

I was pleased to learn that a jury in Cook County on Wednesday rejected the idea that a woman who recorded the activity of police officers trying to intimidate her was the one who actually committed a crime – one that could have gotten her up to a 15-year prison sentence.

BUT THERE’S ALSO this commercial that is popping up on television a lot these days – for the HTC Status phone. That’s the device that comes with special buttons and functions that make it easy for people to take pictures with their mobile phone, then instantly post them to their Facebook accounts more easily than they already can do with their current portable phones.

In my mind, I have dubbed this device the “phone for idiots” and would definitely not want to buy one – because the commercial shows a couple of snickering morons who seem to have nothing better to do than to take pictures of their so-called friend while he sleeps; then post them onto Facebook for public consumption so they can embarrass him.

Somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to figure out some sort of legal standard for what is appropriate behavior for those people who feel compelled to whip out their phone and make recordings of what everybody around them is doing.

What’s the matter? Aren’t these people the least bit interesting, in and of themselves?


But then we run into the other extreme, which is what came up in that case against Tiawanda Moore. She’s the Indiana resident who thought that a Chicago police officer treated her in a way that constituted sexual harassment.

She did what any person is supposed to do if they believe that a police officer in Chicago has misbehaved professionally – she took it to Internal Affairs, the division that investigates such complaints and decides if the bad conduct rises to the level of criminal charges, or just professional punishment.

Of course, Internal Affairs has developed a reputation (not always justified) for being more interested in covering up complaints, rather than finding police wrong-doing. In Moore’s case, she believes the two officers were more interested in intimidating her into dropping her complaint.

THAT IS WHEN she grabbed her BlackBerry, pushed the buttons that allow for audio recording, and managed to capture a few minutes of their questioning of her for posterity.

That is what got her in legal trouble, since Illinois law not only makes it wrong for people to record the words of others without their knowledge, it makes it a  criminal act to record the police.

Law enforcement officials say their concern is that people will record the police either on audio or in moving pictures, then will selectively edit the audio and/or video in ways that would support whatever complaints they would want to file against the Police Department.

Which probably does fit into the mentality of those people who believe that the real “crime” when it comes to Rodney King being beaten by the Los Angeles police back in the early 1990s was that someone who lived nearby pulled out his video camera and recorded the beating without the police knowledge.

GROUPS SUCH AS the American Civil Liberties Union say they think the law is meant to cover up anyone who might catch the police behaving improperly, and they have a lawsuit pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago to challenge it.

Meanwhile, an attorney for another defendant facing charges similar to Moore told the Chicago Tribune that laws restricting personal video or audio recordings are “antiquated” in an age when so many people carry miniature devices that are capable of making such recordings.

Which is a statement that I have some personal qualms about.

I’d hate to think that the idea of respecting someone’s privacy is “antiquated.” Then again, I’d hate to think that the police-desired standard is truly acceptable.

WHICH IS WHY I was pleased to learn that it took a jury just about one hour to make their ruling in favor of Moore, with one juror telling the Chicago Tribune that they listened to the audio and actually agreed with Moore’s perception that the Internal Affairs investigators were “intimidating and insensitive” and that charges against Moore were, “a waste of time.”

Of course, I’m sure those people who support such a law think that the jury overstepped their boundaries in making  such a judgment call – and should have accepted the existence of a four-minute audio snippet of police officers without their knowledge as being improper, in-and-of itself.

But the fact that some people would try to defend this law with a “Letter of the Law” defense instead of claiming that the merits of the law are proper ought to be evidence enough that we in Illinois have a flawed law in need of revamping.

Because somehow, we in Illinois need to find that middle ground between thinking that some people being recorded is a felony offense and thinking that everybody being recorded (with silly pictures all over Facebook) is somehow proper.


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