Tag: law enforcement

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.

DWI Convictions Due to Faulty Breathalyzer Calibration

From the Washington Post:

Nearly 400 people were convicted of driving while intoxicated in the District since fall 2008 based on inaccurate results from breath test machines, and half of them went to jail, city officials said Wednesday.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the machines were improperly adjusted by city police. The jailed defendants generally served at least five days, he said…

The District’s badly calibrated equipment would show a driver’s blood-alcohol content to be about 20 percent higher than it actually was, Nickles said. All 10 of the breath test machines used by District police were wrong, he said. The problem occurred when the officer in charge of maintaining the machines improperly set the baseline alcohol concentration levels, Nickles said.

This is the same jurisdiction where a woman who had a single glass of wine with dinner and a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .03 was arrested for being under the influence in 2005. The national standard for a DWI arrest is .08, and anyone testing below .05 is presumed not to be intoxicated. The District of Columbia’s standard for arrest was anything above .01 if the officer deemed the driver intoxicated. Public outcry over the strict policy, particularly in a town built on tourism, prompted the D.C. Council to temporarily amend the law. The D.C. Police website still says that police can charge DUI (Driving Under the Influence, not Driving While Intoxicated) for a BAC of .07 or lower.

There is good reason to question the foundation of DWI laws and enforcement. Radley Balko makes the case that the federal push for reducing the national DWI BAC standard from .10 to .08 achieved little for public safety in Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) founder Candy Lightner regrets the no-tolerance direction her organization has taken: “[MADD has] become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”

Immigration Law — Up Close

Kirk Adams, speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, has an article in today’s Washington Post on the controversial Arizona immigration law.  Here’s an excerpt:

Under the law, officers can only attempt to determine a person’s immigration status during “lawful contact,” which is defined as a lawful stop, detention or arrest. Any “reasonable suspicion” can be derived only through the investigation of another violation or crime. Those who are concerned that law enforcement can simply walk up to a person and say, “Can I see your papers?” should keep this in mind.

The police are going to ask questions and request to see papers in a variety of circumstances – whether they have reasonable suspicion or not.  From a legal, constitutional, and practical perspective, the key issue is this: What are the consequences, if any, for the person who stands his ground and declines to answer questions or declines to produce identification papers?  If a person declines, will the police back off and say, “Well, that is your right, sir, you may go” or will the police escalate the situation by ordering the person to answer questions, ordering the production of identification, detaining the person, or threaten the person with arrest on bogus charges?

The police are trained to blur the line between “voluntary” interactions with people (perfectly lawful) and “involuntary” interactions with people (where police power is limited by the Constitution).  So, for example, if a police agent says, “Okay pal, let’s see what’s in the backpack!”  it is unclear whether the officer just made a request (lawful) or issued an order (for my purposes here, unlawful).  The onus here is on the layperson to speak up if he does not wish to voluntarily consent to a search: “Officer, I don’t consent to any searches.”  Upon hearing that, the officer will either (a) retreat; (b) clarify that he was ordering, not asking; (c) press the person some more to consent.  A dishonest officer can just lie and deny what you said – and if that matter goes to court the outcome will depend on who the judge believes.  That’s a severe practical disadvantage for laypeople.

With that background in mind, check out this video footage taken by a guy who seems to know constitutional law and immigration law inside out.

The vehicle is not stopped on a warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion.  As far as I can tell, all the cars are being stopped.  The police ask about his immigration status and the driver declines to answer.  The man in the car knows the law well and quickly makes it crystal clear that he’s not interested in a “voluntary” encounter with the police – he wants to be on his way.  The police repeatedly evade his attempt to clarify the situation.  That is, if the police are detaining him, the driver does not want to flee or resist the officers (that’s a crime) – but if the police are not detaining him, the driver does not wish to hang out with them and talk – he wants to be on his way.  Watch the police lie and/or illegally threaten that he will be detained – until he answers their questions.  Watch the police threaten to arrest the man for causing a “safety” hazard, or for “impeding” or obstructing their “work.”  Given those police actions, most people will come to the conclusion that they have no choice in the matter – answer the questions and produce the ID papers.  These are the situations that the courts rarely see.  The citizen who was understandably intimidated by the threats may get mad, but it is not worth it to sue.  If an illegal is discovered, he would be deported in a matter of hours.  This video is thus a real public service announcement – whatever your view is on the immigration matter, do understand clearly how the police will be are interacting with people.

Note also that the police in the video clip work for the federal government, not Arizona.   So those concerned about the Constitution should remain on guard when they hear the claim that “Arizona is only doing what the federal government is already doing.”  Further,  it is doubtful that the Obama administration intends to roll back or reform the powers of the federal police.  Instead, it is trying to retain federal police powers while trying to find a way to challenge Arizona’s methods on racial/ethnic grounds.  The Arizona law is quite misguided, but so too is the president’s legal challenge.

For a terrific video that instructs people on how to deal with the police, go here.

For related Cato work on immigration law, go here, here, and here.

Police Accountability in Maryland

Several people videotaped the arrest of a belligerent woman at the Preakness Stakes and posted it online. The woman assaulted another patron of the race and two officers during her well-deserved arrest.

The criminalization of citizens’ recordings of the arrest, which culminates in the woman lying face down and bleeding, is a different matter.

Toward the end of the video, posted on YouTube (warning: violence and language), a police officer approaches the person filming the arrest and says, “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to videotape anybody’s voice or anything else, against the law in the state of Maryland.”

Unfortunately, the officer was right.

The Maryland wiretapping law makes it illegal to record a conversation without the consent of all parties involved. The Preakness incident sparked a debate about the wisdom of a law that makes it illegal to provide public accountability of police actions.

This is the latest in a rash of incidents where Maryland police were recorded while using force or making arrests. While the Maryland law makes an exception for police to record their encounters with citizens, Maryland law enforcement officers will arrest and indict anyone who records their encounter with the police.

Case in point: Anthony Graber was riding his motorcycle and recording the experience with a helmet-mounted camera. He was riding recklessly and beyond the speed limit, which warranted a citation, but not his detention by a Maryland State Police officer at gunpoint and the trooper not first identifying himself as an officer of the law. The first few seconds of the encounter look like a carjacking, not enforcement of traffic laws. Graber posted his interaction with law enforcement officers on YouTube and was arrested for it. He now faces felony charges under the wiretapping statute, and prosecutors sought $15,000 bond for a crime that carries a maximum $10,000 fine. The judge reportedly questioned the charges at the bond hearing. Graber goes to trial on June 1st.

This is a questionable policy in the same state where excessive use of force against a University of Maryland student resulted in discipline and possible criminal charges for three Prince George’s County officers. The same jurisdiction knew that Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo may have had nothing to do with a drug trafficking ring, but raided his home at gunpoint anyway, terrorized his family, and shot his dogs. The result of the raid was that there was no wrongdoing by Calvo and his family.

The Maryland wiretapping law is itching for an update. It’s time for the Maryland code to stop acting as a barrier to transparency in law enforcement operations.

Collecting Dots and Connecting Dots

As Jeff Stein notes over at the Washington Post, the declassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Christmas underpants bomber ought to sound awfully familiar to anyone who thumbed through the 9/11 Commission’s massive analysis of intelligence failures. Of the 14 points of failure identified by the Senate, one pertains to a failure of surveillance acquisition: the understandably vague claim that NSA “did not pursue potential collection opportunities,” which it’s impossible to really evaluate without more information. (Marc Ambinder tries to fill in some of the gaps at The Atlantic.)  The other 13 echo that old refrain: Lots of data points, nobody managing to connect them. Problems included myopic analysis—folks looking at Yemen focused on regionally-directed threats—sluggish information dissemination, misconfigured computers, and simple failure to act on information already in hand.

Yet you’ll notice that in the wake of such failures, the political response tends to be heavily weighted toward finding ways to collect more dots.  We hear calls for more surveillance cameras in our cities, more wiretapping with fewer restrictions, fancier scanners in the airport, fewer due process protections for captured suspects. Sometimes you’ll also see efforts to address the actual causes of intelligence failure, but they certainly don’t get the bulk of the attention.  And little wonder! Structural problems internal to intelligence or law enforcement agencies, or failures of coordination between them, are a dry, wonky, and often secret business. The solutions are complicated, distinctly unsexy, and (crucially) don’t usually lend themselves to direct legislative amelioration—especially when Congress has already rolled out the big new coordinating entities that were supposed to solve these problems last time around.

But demands for more power and more collection and more visible gee-whiz technology?  Well, those are simple. Those are things you can trumpet in a 700-word op-ed and brag about in press releases to your constituents. Those are things pundits and anchors can debate in without intimate knowledge of Miroesque DOJ org charts.  In short, we end up talking about the things that are easy to talk about.  We should not be under any illusions that this makes them good solutions to intel’s real problems. Hard as it is for pundits to sit silent or legislators to seem idle, sometimes the most vital reforms just don’t make for snazzy headlines.