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Proposed Eavesdropping Law Allows Recording Police (Contrary To Internet Rumors)

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Police cordon off area in Chicago

(David Schaper/NPR)

Nine months after the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the state’s eavesdropping law, the legislature passed a bill to replace it. The legislation, which defines eavesdropping and its consequences, is currently waiting on the governor's desk.

Already, the proposed law faces criticism, and a flurry of misinformation. 

Here's a sampling of some headlines from around the web:

"Illinois Passes Bill That Makes It Illegal To Record The Police"

"Illinois law would make recording the police a felony"

Even this University of Illinois police officer was a bit confused, as heard in this video posted on YouTube last week.

Eventually, the officer allowed the driver, who goes by Michael Kwan on YouTube, to record him.

Technically, Kwan is correct. According to federal courts, anyone can record police officers in a public space. But prior to March, Illinois had been one of only a few states that didn't allow people to record cops.

State senator Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) says the misinformation surrounding the new legislation has been dizzying. Raoul was one of the driving forces behind the bill.

"That's the irony of this," he said. "What everybody's being outraged about, they should've been outraged about for years."

Champaign resident Martel Miller was one of those outraged about the law years ago. Miller was arrested in 2004 for recording police officers.

Miller had begun recording traffic stops after he formed a mentoring program to help at-risk kids.

"And we started talking to them and they said they didn't need a tutoring program, they needed help with the police," he said.

Miller says the kids told him what he'd experienced himself--racial profiling by cops. He says the most obvious sign of that is the number of times African American drivers are pulled over, and how officers treat them at those traffic stops.

So Miller started recording.

Every time he'd come across a traffic stop, Miller says he'd record. Sometimes, people would call him to tell him they were pulled over, and he'd show up with his camera.

Local police got to know Miller fairly well during that time. He says cops warned him about recording them, but he says he took care to stand and record from a distance where he couldn't pick up their voices.

Until one night, when he was recording a traffic stop from across the street, and officers approached him.

"He said, ‘Officer said you taped his voice without his permission.’ I said, ‘You talking about when I’m taping across the street?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t get their voices from across the street.’”

Turns out Miller had earlier picked up the voice of an officer that had yelled closer to him. So Miller was charged with eavesdropping on law enforcement, then a Class 1 felony.

Miller's charges were eventually dropped, and he says he kept recording police.

"I try to figure out what's the reason police do not want to be filmed in public?" he said. "You're out there doing work, you should want to be filmed and make sure it’s right."

But the keyword here is "public." Under the new legislation, state senator Raoul says anyone is free to record an officer when there's no reasonable expectation of privacy... in public, in a car, even in your own home, if a police officer comes to search.

Critics say this "reasonable expectation of privacy" standard is too broad, and could potentially deter citizens from recording police at all. But Raoul says it was left broad on purpose.

“Sometimes when you list some, by implication some may interpret that the ones that you don’t list are not covered,” he said.

What's still not allowed is surreptitiously recording law enforcement on the job if they're in their office, wiretapping their phones, hacking email, etc. Senator Raoul says that's because that recording puts police investigations at risk.

But even that crime would only be a class 3 felony, down from a class one. (Eavesdropping on regular citizens, by the way, would be a class four felony, which carries a lighter penalty).

Ironically, the whole reason Illinois' high court struck down the original eavesdropping law was *because* the law didn't allow citizens to record police.

But this new legislation leaves out key goals that Senator Raoul says he wants to pass fairly soon...chief among them, a law for police body cameras...a hot topic since August, when an unarmed black teen was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri...with no video of the interaction.

Proponents of body cams say the knowledge that exchanges are being recorded will keep both police and citizens accountable for their actions.

Raoul says the sooner the state implements body cams, the better.

"That’s something that we want to take on right away,” he said.

Outgoing governor Pat Quinn has three weeks left in his term to take action on the bill.

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