Police abusing justice system to stop citizens from recording police misconduct

The ACLU of Maryland writes:

On March 5, 2010, Anthony Graber was riding his motorcycle on Interstate 95, and was confronted by a plainclothes Maryland State Police trooper as he came to a stop at an exit. Graber had a video camera prominently mounted on his helmet to record his ride, and the camera recorded the officer’s actions and statements at the outset of the encounter, which ended with Graber receiving a ticket for speeding. Five days later, Graber posted a video on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHjjF55M8JQ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7PC9cZEWCQ&NR=1), showing the encounter, in which the state trooper leaps out of his unmarked vehicle, not in a uniform, and with his gun drawn, yelling at Graber for several seconds to get off of his motorcycle before identifying himself as a police officer.

On March 15, the trooper became aware of the video, and obtained an arrest warrant charging Graber with a violation of the state wiretap law, even though no violation actually occurred. Based on the wiretap charges, the State Police also obtained a search warrant authorizing them to seize all of the Graber family’s computers and hard drives, along with Graber’s video camera. Several weeks later, the Harford County State’s Attorney obtained a grand jury indictment adding several additional motor vehicle charges, and additional wiretap violations, including one alleging possession of “a device… primarily useful for the purpose of surreptitious interception of oral communications,” referring to the widely sold and clearly noticeable GoPro video camera that had been mounted on Graber’s motorcycle helmet.

Graber, a Staff Sergeant in the Maryland Air National Guard, and a computer systems engineer, faces up to 16 years in prison if convicted on all of the charges, along with the loss of his job if he is convicted of any of the wiretap charges, each of which is a felony with a maximum penalty of five years in prison…

It is antithetical to a democracy for the government to tell its citizens that they do not have the right to record what government officials say or do or how they behave… Citizens recording police conduct with video or cell phone cameras have documented important cases of misconduct around the country.

Were recording public police activities illegal, the law would be wrong and unconstitutional. But Maryland law allows this kind of recording: “for such recording to be illegal under the Maryland law, it must involve audio, and the subjects must have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their communications.” Since this happened in public and the police would have had every right to tell a court whatever Mr. Graber said during the traffic stop, the police have no grounds for their actions toward Mr. Graber.

The court must tell the police in unmistakable language that their abusive, illegal misconduct violated Mr. Graber’s rights. The court should further affirm the right of all Americans to record the public behavior of our civil servants, esp. when they are abusing power.

Posted by James on Tuesday, July 27, 2010