Tag: Anthony Graber

First Circuit Affirms Right to Record the Police

Right to Record, a website devoted to the legal aspects of recording police officers, has the scoop. A panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the right of citizens to openly record police officers.

Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting “the free discussion of governmental affairs.” Moreover, as the Court has noted, “[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because ‘[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.’” This is particularly true of law enforcement officials, who are granted substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties. Ensuring the public’s right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses, but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally.

Read the whole thing. It provides a great discussion of the developing legal landscape, as well as some juicy details — like the fact that the attorney defending the statute for Massachusetts wrote her student note about how the Massachusetts wiretapping law is unconstitutional.

This decision is a big deal. The case comes from Massachusetts, one of two states (the other being Illinois) that continues to criminalize recording audio in public. It’s the latest in a string of victories against the Massachusetts wiretapping law that has become a useful tool for police who want to shield their actions from public scrutiny. A Massachusetts District Attorney recently refused to proceed with charges against a woman who recorded a vicious police beating, the D.A. declaring that police officers have no reasonable expectation of privacy while on duty and in public. Cop Block founders Pete Eyre and Adam Mueller were just acquitted on felony wiretapping charges for openly recording their encounter with police officers Massachusetts.

Moving on to the other holdout, Illinois, a woman who surreptitiously recorded Chicago Police Internal Affairs officers trying to persuade her not to file a sexual harassment complaint against police officers was acquitted of felony wiretapping charges. All of this sets the stage for the ACLU v. Alvarez, a lawsuit seeking to prevent future wiretapping charges against citizens who record on-duty police in public.

For more Cato work on the right to record police, take a look at this video and this post on Anthony Graber’s victory over abuse of the Maryland wiretapping statute. Speaking of which, Right to Record provides a page on the Maryland wiretapping statute, supplying the decision in Graber’s case for anyone who faces similar charges in the future.

Judge Dismisses Wiretapping Charges against Motorcyclist for Recording Traffic Stop

Maryland Circuit Court Judge Emory A Pitt, Jr. has ruled that motorcyclist and Maryland Air National Guardsman Anthony Graber did not violate the Maryland wiretapping statute when he recorded his traffic stop. The wiretap law does prohibit the recording of audio where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” but Judge Pitt found that a police officer performing a traffic stop has no such expectation of privacy.

“Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public,” the judge wrote. “When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation.”

As I said in this op-ed, and as Clark Neily, Radley Balko and I pointed out in this video, Maryland police officers have used the “expectation of privacy” claim as a tool to deter anyone from recording on-duty police officers. In Anthony Graber’s case, a Maryland state trooper cut off Graber in an unmarked car and emerged from the driver’s side door in jeans and a gray pullover, gun drawn and badge not visible. It looked like a carjacking, and Graber was not charged for recording the encounter until he posted it on YouTube. The message to other Marylanders was clear: record the police, and you will face arrest and felony prosecution.

The prosecutor behind the case against Graber, Joseph Cassilly, spoke on a panel last week at Cato. He made clear that he disagreed with the structure of the Maryland wiretapping law, and was using the case to push the legislature toward a single-party consent wiretap statute. While I agree with a move to a single-party consent law, it is satisfying to see the charges against Anthony Graber reduced to the traffic violations that instigated the encounter in the first place.

Cops on Camera

The past six months have given us a number of police excesses caught on camera. Police officers savagely beat University of Maryland student John McKenna and filed false felony assault charges against him. Video of the event set the record straight. Prosecutors dropped the charges against McKenna, and four officers have been suspended and are facing state and federal investigations.

The McKenna case showed the value of video as an honest witness. Yet Maryland police officers continue to make the claim that the state wiretapping law forbids recording in public. I discuss this issue in a new Cato video, Cops on Camera, along with attorney Clark Neily of the Institute for Justice and Cato adjunct scholar Radley Balko.

We are hosting an event next Wednesday, September 22, on the right of citizens to record on-duty police, and the prosecutor in the high-profile Maryland wiretapping case against Anthony Graber will be on the panel. Registration available here.

Maryland Attorney General Sides with Anthony Graber

You may remember the case of Anthony Graber, the Maryland motorcyclist charged with violating the state’s wiretapping statute for recording his traffic stop and posting it on YouTube. I’ve said several times over the last few months that these charges are based on a misreading of the law; minus a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” recording an oral communication does not violate the wiretapping statute.

As it turns out, the Maryland Attorney General agrees.

The Maryland Attorney General has released an opinion advising a state legislator that, contrary to the claims of Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly, a traffic stop is probably not an instance where a police officer can claim a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The AG’s opinion provides a thorough survey of Maryland’s and other states’ decisions on the issue, giving three possible interpretations of the wiretap statute as applied to a citizen recording a traffic stop.

First, a court might agree with the theory that police encounters are private conversations, but the AG found that this “seems an unlikely conclusion … particularly when they occur in a public place and involve the exercise of police powers.” That sounds familiar.

Second, a court might conclude that the Maryland statute forbids only the surreptitious recording of a police stop. The opinion deems this an unlikely outcome due to differences between the language of the Maryland law and the wiretapping statutes of Massachusetts and Illinois.

The opinion settles on its third possible outcome, agreeing with what I, Radley Balko, Carlos Miller, the Maryland ACLU, the Maryland courts, other Maryland State’s Attorneys, and the Maryland Attorney General’s previous opinions have said: the Maryland wiretap statute does not permit the prosecution of citizens for recording the actions of public officials in public places.

Graber’s court date is set for October. The AG’s opinion should halt his prosecution and further abuse of the Maryland wiretap statute.

“Privacy” v. Justice: Wiretapping Case Update

Anthony Graber, the Maryland motorcyclist being prosecuted on state felony wiretapping charges for recording his traffic stop and posting the video on YouTube, is the subject of an article in today’s Washington Post. I have said (again and again) that this is a misreading of the Maryland wiretapping statute, which is not supposed provide grounds for prosecution where there is no “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Graber was on the side of the highway, and the police officer asserting this expansive reading of the wiretap statute while making an arrest at the Preakness was in the middle of a large crowd. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in either of those places. The Post article provides the other side of the argument:

The attention the Graber case is receiving has surprised Harford prosecutor Joseph I. Cassilly, who said his office has prosecuted similar cases before, including one within the past year against the passenger of a car that was stopped during a drug investigation who started taping officers with a cellphone camera. Cassilly said he didn’t know the status of the case because the prosecutor handling it has been out sick.

“The question is: Is a police officer permitted to have a private conversation as part of their duty in responding to calls, or is everything a police officer does subject to being audio recorded?” Cassilly said.

Cassilly thinks officers should be able to consider their on-duty conversations to be private.

I disagree. The injustice of the Maryland wiretap law was demonstrated earlier this week when Rep. Bob Etheridge assaulted a student who asked him a question while recording the encounter. The students were lucky that they were in the District of Columbia.

If the scuffle had been in Maryland, Etheridge could have been prosecuted for misdemeanor assault (this remains true for D.C., but I am not aware of any charges that have been made). In contrast, the students would have been on the hook for a felony violation of the wiretap law for recording the event, another violation for posting the event on the internet, and an additional charge for possession of the device used to intercept the conversation. I’m not agreeing with that reading of the law, but that’s the interpretation being used to prosecute Anthony Graber.

Whatever your views on privacy are, that’s not justice.

Baltimore Police Officer Fires 13 Shots, Kills Unarmed Man

An off-duty Baltimore police officer and a former Marine had a disagreement about the Marine’s advances toward the officer’s girlfriend. The officer ended it with thirteen rounds fired from his service pistol, six hitting the Marine and killing him. Baltimore police have confirmed that the Marine was unarmed. The officer refused a breathalyzer at the scene. (HT Instapundit)

It gets better. The officer was involved in another shooting five years ago, which was determined to have been justified, but the officer was disciplined… for being intoxicated.

I suspect that if your average citizen had defended his significant other’s honor with a dozen or so bullets, he would be in jail. Not so for the officer, who remains on administrative leave.

Of course, anyone recording the exchange that led to the shooting could be prosecuted for a felony under Maryland’s wiretapping law. Just ask Anthony Graber.

Revise the Maryland Wiretap Law?

As I said in this piece in the Baltimore Sun, Maryland police officers are misusing that state’s wiretap law to deter anyone who would film them performing their duties. Maryland officers have asserted that any audio recording of a conversation, even in a public place, is a violation of the state’s wiretapping law and a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Officers made this claim to deter filming of an arrest at the Preakness, and when motorcyclist Anthony Graber videotaped his traffic stop.

As Radley Balko points out, the officers’ reading of the law is out of step with the language of the statute itself and Maryland rulings interpreting the scope of the law. Is it time for a revision of this law, or is it just the officers’ interpretation that is the problem? I discussed this on the Kojo Nnamdi Show with the prosecutor pressing charges against Anthony Graber, State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly, and Graber’s lawyer, David Rocah of the Maryland ACLU.

If you ask some officers in Maryland, any recording of a conversation violates the wiretap statute. If you ask a judge, you will get an entirely different reading of the law. Even though Maryland’s wiretapping statute is considered a “unanimous consent” or “two-party consent” law, its language is different from other states put in the same category such as Massachusetts and Illinois. Where Massachusetts and Illinois have no protection for recordings of conversations outside of electronic means of communication, the first section of the Maryland wiretapping law restricts unlawful interceptions of “oral communications” to words spoken in a “private conversation.”

While the analysis for wire communications is made without regard to privacy, Maryland courts held in Fearnow v. C & P Telephone Co. that a “private conversation” is one where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Fourth Amendment jurisprudence provides plenty of guidance on where a “reasonable expectation of privacy” exists. Simply put, a traffic stop on an interstate is not a place where Anthony Graber or the officers who cited him have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

This conclusion is bolstered by the guidance given to the Montgomery County Police by the Maryland Attorney General in this 2000 advisory opinion on recording traffic stops. Since 1991, the wiretapping statute had an exemption for police dash cameras where officers could record interactions with motorists when they warned the citizen that the traffic stop would be recorded. The 2000 letter addresses the possibility that other people could show up after the receipt of consent from a motorist and potential “inadvertent interceptions.” The opinion concludes that there is little for officers to worry about, but the state legislature expanded the law enforcement exception in 2002 to address this concern anyway. In a footnote, the advisory opinion makes the point that, in any case, the motorists being pulled over have no reasonable expectation of privacy:

It is also notable that many encounters between uniformed police officers and citizens could hardly be characterized as “private conversations.” For example, any driver pulled over by a uniformed officer in a traffic stop is acutely aware that his or her statements are being made to a police officer and, indeed, that they may be repeated as evidence in a courtroom. It is difficult to characterize such a conversation as “private.”

The Attorney General’s office provided further guidance on the issue in this letter to a state legislator in 2009, advising that surreptitious recording of a meeting of the Democratic Club would probably not be a violation of the Maryland wiretapping law because statements made in this setting lack a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

So, under the interpretation of the law supporting Anthony Graber’s prosecution, dash camera footage of Anthony Graber’s traffic stop is not a violation of the law, but Graber’s helmet-mounted footage is. The law enforcement officer, a public official performing public duties, retains a “reasonable expectation of privacy” on the side of I-95, but Anthony Graber has none. This is an assertion made contrary to the interpretation of the courts of Maryland, the Maryland Attorney General, and common sense.

This injustice could be resolved in several ways. First, as Radley suggests, the Maryland Attorney General could issue an opinion clarifying the wiretapping law with regards to recording police activity. Advisory opinions are not generally given sua sponte, so a state legislator or other official would have to request the AG’s interpretation. Second, Anthony Graber’s case may provide a rebuttal to an expansive reading of the statute by Maryland law enforcement officers. Third, the legislature could step in to deter future abuse of the statute by expressly stating that public discussions are not “private conversations.”

I discussed this on the Kojo Nnamdi Show with David Rocah and Joseph Cassilly. Rocah wants to preserve the “two-party consent” statute. The legislature, in fact, can clarify the  definition of “private conversations” without changing the consent requirement of the law with regard to electronic communications.

On the other hand, State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly recalled occasions when citizens have come to his office with recordings of threats or extortion demands and he was required to tell them that under Maryland law (1) their recording was not admissible as evidence because it did not have the consent of the threatening or extorting party (though I see no reason that a letter with the same communication would be inadmissible); and (2) the victim of the threat or extortion committed a felony violation of the wiretapping law by making the recording in the first place. That may be the law, but it’s not justice.

In any case, the prosecution of Anthony Graber is an abuse of police power. If Maryland law enforcement officers continue to use the state’s wiretapping law to shield their activities from public view, the backlash may result in a revision of the law in its entirety.