Growing Number of Prosecutions for Videotaping the Police

Cops and Cameras: Arrests Fuel Debate About Wiretap Laws

That Anthony Graber broke the law in early March is indisputable. He raced his Honda motorcycle down Interstate 95 in Maryland at 80 mph, popping a wheelie, roaring past cars and swerving across traffic lanes.

But it wasn't his daredevil stunt that has the 25-year-old staff sergeant for the Maryland Air National Guard facing the possibility of 16 years in prison. For that, he was issued a speeding ticket.

It was the video that Graber posted on YouTube one week later -- taken with his helmet camera -- of a plainclothes state trooper cutting him off and drawing a gun during the traffic stop near Baltimore.

In early April, state police officers raided Graber's parents' home in Abingdon, Md. They confiscated his camera, computers and external hard drives. Graber was indicted for allegedly violating state wiretap laws by recording the trooper without his consent.

Arrests such as Graber's are becoming more common along with the proliferation of portable video cameras and cell-phone recorders. Videos of alleged police misconduct have become hot items on the Internet. YouTube still features Graber's encounter along with numerous other witness videos.

"The message is clearly, 'Don't criticize the police,'" said David Rocah, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland who is part of Graber's defense team. "With these charges, anyone who would even think to record the police is now justifiably in fear that they will also be criminally charged."

Carlos Miller, a Miami journalist who runs the blog "Photography Is Not a Crime," said he has documented about 10 arrests since he started keeping track in 2007. Miller himself has been arrested twice for photographing the police. He won one case on appeal, he said, while the other was thrown out after the officer twice failed to appear in court.

"They're just regular citizens with a cell-phone camera who happen to come upon a situation," Miller said. "If cops are doing their jobs, they shouldn't worry."

The ACLU of Florida filed a First Amendment lawsuit last month on behalf of a model who was arrested February 2009 in Boynton Beach. Fla. Her crime: videotaping an encounter between police officers and her teenage son at a movie theater. Prosecutors refused to file charges against Sharron Tasha Ford and her son.

Videotaping as a Tool for Citizens

"The police have cameras in their cars. I watch cops on TV," Ford said. "I'm very hurt by what happened. A lot of people are being abused by police in the same way."

Ford's lawyer, James Green, called videotaping "probably the most effective way to protect citizens against police officers who exaggerate or lie."

"Judges and juries want to believe law enforcement," he said. "They want to believe police officers and unless you have credible evidence to contradict police officers, it's often very difficult to get judges or juries to believe the word of a citizen over a police officer."

In Palm Beach County, Fla., Greenacres resident Peter Ballance, 63, who has Asperger's syndrome and has to record conversations to help his memory, settled a civil lawsuit for $100,000 last year. In August 2005, police officers tackled and arrested Ballance for refusing to turn off his tape recorder.

"You know what," said the officer, according to court documents, "I still don't want that recording device on."

"Well, it's on," Ballance replied.

"It is a third-degree felony," the cop said. "If you want to push it, you can go to jail for it."

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