THE BLOG
12/12/2007 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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.