Friday, June 18, 2010

Candid Camera, COPS Edition

One of this week’s most-watched YouTube videos depicted a Seattle police officer punching a 19-year-old woman in the face. Bystanders recorded the tense confrontation, which began when Officer Ian Walsh stopped the woman and her 17-year-old friend to issue a citation for jaywalking. The younger woman angrily disputed the detainment and resisted Walsh’s repeated attempts to physically restrain her; when her older friend attempted to pull the 17-year-old away (shoving the officer in the process), Walsh responded with a quick punch that stunned the nearby crowd and ignited debate online about the appropriate use of force.

Although the general consensus on this particular video seems to be that putting one’s hands on a police officer tends to invite this sort of reaction, there have certainly been other police incidents caught on camera which have created more controversy about officers’ behavior, from the 1991 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles to another incident in Seattle earlier this year, where officers were recorded while kicking and making ethnic slurs to a robbery suspect (who was later exonerated). In recent years, the development of sophisticated cell phone cameras and the rise of video-sharing sites like YouTube have made it easy for everyday citizens to become amateur journalists; home videos of traffic stops, confrontations, and arrests abound on the web, and can ultimately be valuable evidence in proving or disproving allegations of police brutality.

No one disputes that police officers have one of the toughest jobs in the world, and that vocal onlookers can make an already stressful situation turn even more volatile. In some states, though, police who find themselves the stars of an impromptu documentary are now striking back -- with wiretapping charges. An Illinois man currently faces 4 to 15 years in prison for felony eavesdropping, stemming from the use of a voice recorder during a conversation on the street with police. Earlier this year, a Massachusetts bicyclist was also arrested for illegal wiretapping during a traffic stop (see his blog post about the incident). And in Maryland, a National Guard sergeant who posted video of his traffic stop on YouTube also faces a wiretapping charge. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing many of these defendants, and challenging such applications of eavesdropping laws in court. But until these cases are resolved—how would you know if your cell phone video recordings of police activity on the street could land you in legal hot water?

You might start with your state laws on wiretapping and/or eavesdropping, perhaps even comparing the language to the laws in states where would-be journalists have found themselves facing charges. State codes are available in print on level 3 of the library, and online through the websites of most state legislatures (links at State Legal Sources on the Web). But finding the right sections in codes can be tricky—a 50-state survey may be a better place to start, giving you a shortcut to the relevant code sections in each state. Law students have access to the 50-state survey databases in LexisNexis and Westlaw, which each offer a survey on electronic surveillance laws; a similar survey of electronic surveillance statutes is available for free from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ A-Z Issues list.

The ACLU’s downloadable pocket card "Know Your Rights" may also be handy in situations involving the police. Although the card does not specifically address photography of police activity, it does contain general tips for handling police stops—including some ("Don’t get into an argument...Don’t touch any police officer") that perhaps would have saved that Seattle teenager a bruised jaw and an assault charge. The ACLU website also offers news and updates on related cases in its "Technology & Liberty" section; for additional coverage of related stories, check out Miami blogger Carlos Miller’s Photography is Not a Crime.