The Dark Side of Privacy Law:

InstaPundit links to a story about someone who was "convicted of violating state wiretapping laws" for "conceal[ing] a camera to videotape a Boston University police sergeant ... during a 2006 political protest."

That's pretty outrageous, but it's entirely consistent with a 2001 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in Commonwealth v. Hyde, which is based on Massachusetts' extremely broad privacy law:

This case raises the issue whether a motorist may be prosecuted for violating the Massachusetts electronic surveillance statute ... for secretly tape recording statements made by police officers during a routine traffic stop. A jury in the District Court convicted the defendant on four counts of a complaint charging him with unlawfully intercepting the oral communications of another .... We conclude that [the state interception law] strictly prohibits the secret electronic recording by a private individual of any oral communication, and makes no exception for a motorist who, having been stopped by police officers, surreptitiously tape records the encounter. Accordingly, we affirm the judgments of conviction.

... On October 26, 1998, just after 10:30 P.M., an Abington police officer stopped the defendant's white Porsche, because the automobile had an excessively loud exhaust system and an unlit rear registration plate light. Three other Abington police officers arrived shortly thereafter and the stop quickly became confrontational. During the course of the stop, which lasted approximately fifteen to twenty minutes, the defendant and his passenger, Daniel Hartesty, were ordered out of the automobile, and Hartesty was pat frisked.

One officer reached into the automobile, picked up a plastic shopping bag that lay on the floor by the passenger seat, and looked inside. (The bag contained compact discs.) At one point, the defendant stated that the stop was "a bunch of bullshit," and that he had been stopped because of his long hair. One officer responded, "Don't lay that shit on me." Later, another officer called the defendant "an asshole." The defendant was asked whether he had any "blow" (cocaine) in the car.

At the conclusion of the stop, the defendant and Hartesty were allowed to leave. No traffic citation was issued to the defendant, and the defendant was not charged with any crime. According to the testimony of one police officer, the defendant was "almost out of control" and the stop "had gone so sour," that it was deemed in everyone's interest simply to give the defendant a verbal warning. Unbeknownst to the officers, however, the defendant had activated a hand-held tape recorder at the inception of the stop and had recorded the entire encounter.

Six days later, the defendant went to the Abington police station to file a formal complaint based on his unfair treatment during the stop. To substantiate his allegations, he produced the tape recording he had made. A subsequent internal investigation conducted by the Abington police department, which concluded on February 1, 1999, exonerated the officers of any misconduct.

In the meantime, the Abington police sought a criminal complaint in the Brockton Division of the District Court Department against the defendant for four counts of wiretapping in violation of [the state law].

So there you have the dark side of "privacy" — the law aimed at protecting privacy ends up wrongly restricting people's liberty, and people's ability to protect themselves against police misconduct. Here's part of the court's rationale:

We reject the defendant's argument that the statute is not applicable because the police officers were performing their public duties, and, therefore, had no reasonable expectation of privacy in their words. The statute's preamble expresses the Legislature's general concern that "the uncontrolled development and unrestricted use of modern electronic surveillance devices pose[d] grave dangers to the privacy of all citizens of the commonwealth" and this concern was relied on to justify the ban on the public's clandestine use of such devices.

And this protection of "privacy" extends not just to allegedly misbehaving cops but also to ... kidnappers calling in ransom requests: "In Commonwealth v. Jackson, this court rejected the argument that, because a kidnapper has no legitimate privacy interest in telephone calls made for ransom purposes, the secret electronic recording of that conversation by the victim's brother would not be prohibited ...."

These incidents aren't necessarily an indictment of all such laws. Perhaps such a law could be properly drafted to exclude audiotaping of conversations with the police, or of conversations with people who one reasonably believes are trying to extort something from you or threaten you. But the incidents are a warning that not all laws proposed in the name of "privacy" are good, especially when they try to protect one person's privacy by constraining another's liberty to record conversations to which one is lawfully a party.

UPDATE: Even Prof. Dan Solove (Concurring Opinions), who often disagrees with me on privacy issues, agrees on this one.

Surreptitious Recording of the Police:

Apropos the story about secret videotaping of the police in Massachusetts, check out this incident:

A teenage suspect who secretly recorded his interrogation on an MP3 player has landed a veteran detective in the middle of perjury charges, authorities said Thursday.

Unaware of the recording, Detective Christopher Perino testified in April that the suspect "wasn't questioned" about a shooting in the Bronx, a criminal complaint said. But then the defense confronted the detective with a transcript it said proved he had spent more than an hour unsuccessfully trying to persuade Erik Crespo to confess — at times with vulgar tactics....

Perino, 42, was arraigned Thursday on 12 counts of first-degree perjury ....

Perino had arrested Crespo on New Year's Eve 2005 while investigating the shooting of a man in an elevator. While in an interrogation room at a station house, Crespo, then 17, stealthily pressed the record button on the MP3 player, a Christmas gift, DeMarco said....

[After the disclosure, p]rosecutors then offered Crespo, who had faced as many as 25 years if convicted, seven years if he pleaded guilty to a weapons charge. He accepted.

Thanks to Wade Glover and Prof. Arnold Lowey for the pointer.

UPDATE: For a transcript of portions of the recording, see this Village Voice piece.

Looking for a Client for Right-to-Record-Police-Officers Case:

My friend Michael Rosman at the Center for Individual Rights writes:

Like many of your readers, I was intrigued by your recent post concerning the conviction of individuals for taping or videotaping police officers while the officers are doing their job in public. Some of your readers thought that there may be some federal constitutional problem in laws that make such tapings illegal. My employer, the Center for Individual Rights, is interested in possibly representing individuals who want to challenge such laws as a violation of constitutional rights.

Ideally, a potential client would be a person or organization that legitimately is concerned about being arrested for taping police officers, or who would engage in that conduct were it not for a law making it illegal. Obviously, it would have to be in a state where the law makes that concern reasonable. (Your post referred to Massachusetts. We believe that Pennsylvania may be another such state, although the law there is more in flux.) Someone who has already gotten in trouble for violating such a law is fine, but we would not be the best lawyers to represent someone currently involved in an ongoing criminal or civil proceeding in state court.

If any of your readers are among those who would like to challenge a law of this kind, or can help us identify the states where such laws exist by giving us cites to relevant statutes or cases, (s)he can email me at rosman [at]

UPDATE: Two interesting surveillance-related items in this post, including a Popular Mechanics piece from Prof. Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit) on the subject.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Looking for a Client for Right-to-Record-Police-Officers Case:
  2. Surreptitious Recording of the Police:
  3. The Dark Side of Privacy Law: