Police increasingly use false wiretapping charges to prevent video recordings

A South Florida model films a cop who is threatening to arrest her son and she gets arrested on felony charges.

An Oregon man films a cop who is roughing up his mentally ill friend and he gets arrested on felony charges.

And a Boston man films a cop arresting a drug suspect and he gets arrested on felony charges.

These are only a handful of people in this country who have been arrested in recent years on felony charges after doing something that is protected under the First Amendment.

Their charges? Illegal wiretapping or eavesdropping, a charge that never fails to get thrown out before reaching court. But by then, the damage is done. Their rights have been trampled on and police rarely get punished for making such unlawful arrests.

An article this week in the Boston Globe highlighted such arrests in the Boston area, but anybody who reads this blog knows these types of arrests occur on too much of a frequent basis around the country.

There are no hard statistics for video recording arrests. But the experiences of Surmacz and Glik highlight what civil libertarians call a troubling misuse of the state’s wiretapping law to stifle the kind of street-level oversight that cell phone and video technology make possible.

“The police apparently do not want witnesses to what they do in public,’’ said Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who helped to get the criminal charges against Surmacz dismissed.

The laws on illegal wiretapping vary from state to state, but one thing is clear in all states. A person must have had an expectation of privacy in order to become a victim.

In other words, if you are filming a cop in public, that cop does not have an expectation of privacy. Especially if that cop sees your camera.

For more information, check out the Field Guide to Secret Audio and Video Recordings.

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