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Bill to reform Illinois eavesdropping law moves forward

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An Illinois bill that would decriminalize the audio-recording of police officers engaging in their official duties in public is moving…

An Illinois bill that would decriminalize the audio-recording of police officers engaging in their official duties in public is moving forward to the full state House of Representatives.

H.B. 3944, which would create an exemption under Illinois' strict eavesdropping law, was approved by a 9-2 vote by the Civil Law Committee of the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted testimony to the committee in support of the reforms.

In Illinois, it is currently a class one felony to audio-record a police officer without the officer's consent, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, according to the statute. It is also illegal under the law to record anyone without their consent, although the punishment is not as severe.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, chief sponsor of the bill, said that while the vote in committee was strong, there would likely need to be more education for the House on what the exemption would and would not mean. For example, some individuals had expressed concern that the exemption could lead people to interfere with police activity, though interference would remain a crime, Nekritz said. This is likely a matter of "more education," not redrafting the law, she said.

The current law has been criticized by people on both sides of the issue, including Slate columnist and Reporters Committee steering committee member Dahlia Lithwick, and Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who expressed support for recording at a panel discussion in Chicago last month. The law is under direct constitutional challenge in two pending cases, and is implicated in at least one more.

ACLU of Illinois v. Alvarez, currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.), is a preenforcement challenge to the law, meaning that no one in the case was actually arrested. The American Civil Liberties Union alleged that they declined to report on public demonstrations out of fear of arrest. They have argued that the law violates the First Amendment. The Reporters Committee filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the ACLU.

Illinois v. Allison, by contrast, involves a man who was arrested and charged with five counts of violating the eavesdropping law. The trial court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, and that ruling is currently under review by the Supreme Court of Illinois. The Court will hear argument in the case later this year.

The third case is a civil lawsuit by Tiawanda Moore, who was arrested, tried, and found not guilty of violating the statute. She recorded two police officers who she claimed were wrongfully impeding her ability to file a sexual harassment complaint against another officer.

The bill will now proceed to floor debate before the full House of Representatives, though this has yet to be scheduled.