If you plan to videotape police officers at work in public, just be sure you’re not in Massachusetts — or you might end up in jail.
A report from the New England Center For Investigative Reporting has chronicled a pattern of what civil liberties advocates say is a misuse of police powers: Massachusetts police are using the state’s stringent surveillance laws to arrest and charge people who record police activities in public.
It’s a situation that is pitting new technologies against police powers. With recording equipment now embedded into cellphones and other common technologies, recording police activities has never been easier, and has resulted in numerous cases of police misconduct being brought to light. And that, rights advocates argue, is precisely what the police are trying to prevent.
In October, 2007, Boston lawyer Simon Glick witnessed what he said was excessive use of police force during the arrest of a juvenile. When he pulled out his cellphone to record the incident, he was arrested and charged with “illegal electronic surveillance.”
In December, 2008, Jon Surmacz, a webmaster at Boston University, was attending a party that was broken up by police. Thinking that the police were being unnecessarily rough in the encounter, he pulled out his cellphone and started recording. He, too, was arrested and charged with illegal surveillance.
In September, 2002, citizen journalist Jeffrey Manzelli was arrested and charged with illegal surveillance after recording police officers cracking down on protesters at an anti-war rally.
Massachusetts is one of 12 US states that require “two-party” consent for surveillance. (The others include California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.) While two-party consent laws were originally designed to stop private detectives and others from invading people’s privacy, in Massachusetts the law’s application has now broadened to include what civil libertarians say is an attempt by police to stop public oversight of their activities.
“The statute has been misconstrued by Boston police,’’ June Jensen, the lawyer who recently succeeded in having the charges against Glick thrown out, told investigative reporter Daniel Rowinski. “You could go to the Boston Common and snap pictures and record if you want; you can do that.’’
But that’s not necessarily how Massachusetts’ highest court sees it. As Alexandra Andrews reports at ProPublica, in 2001 the state’s Supreme Court upheld a conviction of a man who was arrested in 1998 for recording an encounter with police. “Since then, such arrests have continued to occur,” she reports.
Read the complete report from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting here.
TERROR LAWS AND TOURIST PHOTOS
Civil libertarians have been arguing for years that the beefed-up anti-terrorism laws that have come in to force in much of the Western world in recent years also present an opportunity for abuse of police power.
Earlier this year, a new anti-terror statute in Britain — known as Section 76 — allowed police to arrest anyone found “eliciting, publishing or communicating information” about soldiers, intelligence agents or police officers that is “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”
Since that definition is so broad, it has allowed police to arrest virtually anyone who takes a photograph of a police officer. Since the law was enacted last year, it has been used to delete tourists’ photos of London, and to arrest and fine visitors who take pictures of landmarks.