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Illinois Eavesdropping Law Reversed: Court Sides With ACLU Over Police Recordings

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n this photo taken Feb 2, 2012, cell phones are used to record Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, not pictured, as he is confronted by the Illinois Secretary of State Police.
n this photo taken Feb 2, 2012, cell phones are used to record Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, not pictured, as he is confronted by the Illinois Secretary of State Police.

A federal court ruled Tuesday that Illinois' controversial eavesdropping law "likely violates" the first amendment, and called for the state to stop prosecuting those facing eavesdropping charges.

The case in question pitted the American Civil Liberties Union against States Attorney Anita Alvarez, who was trying to prosecute ACLU staff for recording audio of police officers on duty in a public place. The U.S. Court of Appeals, however, blocked Alvarez's office from prosecuting the ACLU and its employees.

Harvey Grossman of the ACLU of Illinois claimed the ruling as a victory in a statement issued by the agency:

"In order to make the rights of free expression and petition effective, individuals and organizations must be able to freely gather and record information about the conduct of government and their agents – especially the police," Grossman said.

The state law that forbids individuals from recording others without explicit consent has divided Illinois following the case of Tiawanda Moore, a Chicago woman who was charged with a felony for recording police investigators trying to convince her not to file a report against an officer she claims groped her while on duty.

Moore sued the city and the police department after spending more than two weeks in jail on eavesdropping charges, and in a series of appeals, her case and others like it received conflicting rulings over the law's constitutionality.

Moore was acquitted. But in late 2011, a judge from the same court that issued Tuesday's ACLU ruling expressed support for the eavesdropping ban, arguing that allowing exceptions for audio recordings would be "a bad thing," and could lead to more "snooping around by reporters and bloggers."

Chicago's own police chief Garry McCarthy has questioned the policy, arguing that civilians should have a right to record officers and that the department should embrace any means to increase accountability and transparency across the force.

"As far as the use of videotape, I certainly endorse it, for the protection of the police as well as [civilians]," McCarthy said at a panel in January. "There's no argument when you show videotape and can look at what happened. I actually am a person who endorses video and audio recording."

A legislative proposal to change the law is being considered by the Illinois House this session.

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