In Illinois, It’s a Felony to Film Police

Published May 5, 2011

Chicago’s Operation Virtual Shield is the most extensive video surveillance network in the United States, linking more than 3,000 surveillance cameras to a centralized monitoring system so powerful it can zoom in to read the text of a book.

Conversely, Illinois’ tough eavesdropping laws allow prosecution of citizens who film on-duty police officers as a Class 1 felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

In recent years, felony charges have been filed against a 60-year old street artist who videotaped his arrest as part of his civil disobedience; an exotic dancer who claimed that she had been sexually assaulted by police and videotaped her discussions with Internal Affairs; and two brothers who used their cell phones to record their own arrests.

All of the felony charges listed above were ultimately dropped, but only after each defendant pled guilty to lesser charges and agreed to drop countersuits related to procedural or physical abuses by police and court personnel.

Video Allowed, Sound Prohibited
The Illinois Eavesdropping Act prohibits audio recording conversations without the consent of all parties, although citizens are allowed to record conversations if they have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a crime is about to be committed against them.

Although many states prohibit the recording of private conversations (even by one of the participants) only a handful of states extend their laws to conversations that take place in a public place. Eavesdropping on ordinary citizens in Illinois carries a penalty of three years in prison for the first offense or five years for the second, but recording a law-enforcement officer or judge carries stiffer penalties and longer jail sentences.

“If you take photographs or a silent video of a police arrest, and then post them on the Web, or take out a full-page ad in a newspaper that includes the photos and a description of the arrest, you have done nothing wrong at all” said Michael E. Rosman, general counsel for the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington, DC-based public-interest law firm. “But if your video has sound, you’ve committed a felony.”

‘Law Used to Coerce Citizens’
Patrick Wright, senior legal analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based education and research institution, says the Act is “a draconian piece of legislation that denies citizens’ fundamental right to protect themselves from abuses performed by public officials.”

Wright added, “Enforcement of the law seems to be used in many instances to force litigants to drop charges against bad actors in the law enforcement and legal communities who have been captured red-handed on video recording equipment, rather than benefit cops and courtroom staff in the responsible and safe performance of their jobs,” he said.

“It appears more that the law is used to coerce citizens to either drop legitimate charges or face exorbitant fines and even jail time,” said Wright.

Kyle McGrath ([email protected]) writes from Waterford, Michigan.