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THIS IS THE POLICE. DROP THE CAMERA: Illinois’ Eavesdropping Law Turns Smart-Phone Owners Into Felons - Page 3 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Larry McDonald   
Thursday, 09 June 2011 05:47

Trooper. Officer. Deputy. Can We Talk?

I respect and appreciate what you do. In my experience, law-enforcement officers have behaved with the utmost civility and professionalism. As I reflect on the times that I’ve clearly been outside the law, I am reminded of the officers who cut me some slack. (One hundred ten miles per hour in a 55 zone comes to mind.) Admittedly, that slack probably wouldn’t have occurred if the officer thought he was being recorded, and it definitely wouldn’t have occurred if I jammed a camera in his face.

So let me attempt to return the favor. Remember when reality-TV shows such as Cops and America’s Most Wanted were introduced? Law enforcement won a tremendous public-relations chit then. You are in danger of losing that chit in the next few years. Not because of anything I think or say, but because the numbers and the technology are against you.

Every year we will see an increase in the number of smart-phone users, and the younger they are, the more likely they are to exercise their God-given right to video-record your activities – especially because they themselves were raised being video-recorded.

Every year, the cameras within the smart phones will become more technologically advanced. Features such as telephoto lenses will allow recordings to be made from greater distances. Cameras will shrink in size. Often, you will never know the recording was made. Social-networking sites and a younger generation’s increasing use of them will mean the video of you will go viral instantly. The eavesdropping act will no longer be any kind of shield, because once people are aware of it, they will cease to claim ownership of recordings. Then you are really in the censorship business, and we all know how well that works.

And the more you aggressively pursue enforcement of the law, the more people will find the law absurd and anachronistic, and push to repeal the ban on recording police activities.

But while the law is still in effect, what should you do?

Let people record. People are not motivated to photograph or record mundane, everyday events. They pull out cameras when unusual, exciting events occur. But while three squads converging on the perp look great in the editable world of Cops, it won’t look nearly as good when the perp is just a drunk at the convenience store and the cameraman is some kid with an Android. If just one unit shows up and the drunk is quietly given a ride home, the footage is almost certain to make it to the cutting-room floor, as they used to say.

At an organizational level, you’ll need to address this emerging and continuing departmental problem. Your leaders must craft a policy on recording police activities in public, and they’ll need to make some sound decisions. Will you enforce the law? Under what circumstances? What will your procedures be regarding the arrest of videographers, confiscation of their equipment, and deletion of recordings? Train your officers, and make sure the public is made aware of your policy.

That cop who caught me doing 110 in a 55 mercifully gave me an expensive ticket for 29 miles per hour over the speed limit, which I gratefully accepted. Thirty or over in Illinois means you landed on the Go to Jail space. Then he showed me an interesting little piece of technology. Namely, that the company that made my radar detector and the one that made his speed gun were one and the same. He went on to explain that every year or so, the company would come out with a new speed gun that existing detectors couldn’t pick up, and then it would introduce a new line of detectors that could. In other words, he wasn’t the trap; the trap was a clever snare of marketing, and by thinking I had some bit of technological advantage, I was speeding right into it.

Trooper. Officer. Deputy. Because you believe you presently have a legal advantage, please don’t go speeding into a public-relations trap.

Larry McDonald is Quad Cities-based communications consultant and campaign advisor. Comments and hate mail concerning this article may be directed to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Sidebar: A Brief History of Illinois’ Eavesdropping Law

(Return to the main story.)

Illinois’ eavesdropping statute dates back to at least 1961, but in the past two decades legislators have made significant changes.

At core, the law requires that all parties to a conversation consent to its recording. (Some states allow one-party consent – that is, only one participant needs to agree to let a conversation be recorded.)

In 1986, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in People V. Beardsley that the eavesdropping law only applied to situations in which parties “believe that the conversation is private and cannot be heard by others.”

In 1994, the Illinois General Assembly made two key changes. First, it exempted law-enforcement officers from some consent requirements. It also expanded the definition of a “conversation” to eliminate the expectation-of-privacy requirement; the eavesdropping law now applies “regardless of whether one or more of the parties intended their communication to be of a private nature.” In other words, an audible conversation on a public street between a police officer and a citizen can no longer be legally recorded by a citizen without the consent of both parties under Illinois’ statute.

This makes Illinois’ eavesdropping law unusual. As the American Civil Liberties Union says in its current case: “The federal government, 39 states, and the District of Columbia each have a statute criminalizing the audio recording of certain in-person conversations – unlike Illinois – only if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. [Only] two states other than Illinois [Massachusetts and Oregon] extend their prohibitions to audio recording of conversations whether or not there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, but they do so in a manner substantially narrower than in Illinois.”

In 2000, a provision enhancing penalties for recording law-enforcement officials was added. While a violation of the statue is a Class 4 felony (punishable by up to three years in prison), recording a law-enforcement official is a Class 1 felony (punishable by up to 15 years in prison).

Furthermore, in 2009 the Illinois legislature made more explicit some broad exemptions to the eavesdropping law for law enforcement. As the ACLU summarizes: “Uniformed police may record practically all of their conversations with civilians [without consent], while civilians are precluded from recording those same conversations.”

(Return to the main story.)

Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Police Victum, June 10, 2011
As public servants whose testimony is almost seen as golden and can be responsible for people serving decades in prison it would seem that we should be able to record everything that they do. If they do the right thing then they have nothing to fear, if they plant evidence, violate citizens rights, lie, engage in police brutality, etc, then don't we hope that the truth be known and they can be removed from service?

Strangely enough I see all the time on the show "Cops" someone on the ground being struck by officers. The person is face down with their hands behind their back and while the officers strike them they keep yelling "stop resisting" . . . I don't see how the person could possibly deserve to be hit while face down and their hands behind their back. I'm convinced that the shouts of "stop resisting" are really about convincing potential witnesses that the person on the ground must have been resisting and so deserved to be hit repeatedly and have their face slammed into the concrete. "Watch your head" they say when putting you into the car and then with their hand on the back of your head they forcefully guide it right into the top of the door frame . . . "I told you to watch your head" . . .

Do I sound like I don't view the police as protectors but as predators? My entire low income neighborhood feels that way . . . we get all kinds of policing but very little protection from the police . . . The thieves and robbers run free but everyone else gets treated like a criminal . . .
written by Police Victum, June 11, 2011
Got pulled over and my car searched in my low income neighborhood again last night . . . they were swarming like a wolf pack all over the neighborhood. I knew before any officers even saw me exit the alley that I would be getting pulled over because of the way that all the squad cars were racing all over in and out of the streets and doing 180's in the middle of the street. Didn't get a half a block away after they let me go and the already had someone else pulled over. Does it bother anyone else that the people who live in that part of town are all treated like we are prisoners in their gulag and that the 4th amendment has been shredded to oppress the poor?
Video Producer
written by TDS, June 21, 2011
I am happy to see this issued covered. Here is a short interview with Chris Drew a local Chicago artist facing charges under the Illinois Eavesdropping Law.
Wrongfuly arrested twice now?????
written by Disablednotdead, July 22, 2011
Funny how my worthless child molestor neighbour recorded my first arrest and it was actually used in court and then the jack ass tried recording the second one but you say this is wrong?
I actually was sent to jail for 4 days the first time because his kids lied to the police. I would love to hear what they think they know about me because they refuse to even hear anything when they come to my house and yet I am to be civil and not get mad when they did nothing about my daughter nearly being raped by his son?????
written by Bergman, October 02, 2011
I'm reminded of an old story, that ostensibly describes how an entire Chinese imperial dynasty was toppled. Two farmers are walking down a road. The first one says to the other, "What time do we need to be at work?" The second one says "A minute ago." The first says "What's the penalty for being late to work?" The second one replies "Death." The first one asks "What's the penalty for armed rebellion?" The second one answers "Death."

If the combined penalties for exercising a Constitutional right amount to a longer jail time than your life expectancy, and the penalty for murdering police is equal or less, what do you have to lose? You never know, you might get away with it.
Ron Paul Revolution!
written by karaoke singer, November 02, 2011
I really hope people see what is going on and how Ron Paul is truly the only answer out of this mess. If I am wrong...then who is Right? Government is Way Out Of Control - PERIOD!
Illinois Eavesdroppping Law Still Alive
written by Paul Simon, January 04, 2014
The has issued an informational video and a press release, to help the media and the general public in the upcoming oral argument at the Illinois Supreme Court hearing in Annabel Melongo’s eavesdropping case. The hearing is scheduled for January 14th, 2014, at the 18th floor of the Michael A. Bilandic Building, 160 N. LaSalle Street, Chicago at 9.30 am.

Press Release:

Please support this cause. The Illinois Eavesdropping law at its very core creates a two-class legal system wherein the conversations of the powerful and well-connected are protected to the detriment of the less powerful. The upcoming oral argument presents a unique opportunity for the common citizen to re-establish that legal balance that will unequivocally establish a right to record public officials in their public duties.

Therefore, please contribute to this all-important hearing by either attending it, writing about it, spreading the word or just forwarding the below video and press release to anybody who might be of any help.

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