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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit decides ACLU v. Alvarez

Just a few days ago, on May 3rd, the ILB posted an entry headed "Recording Police v. Recording Citizens Debated in 7th Circuit and in Illinois Legislature." Today the 7th Circuit issued its opinion, written by Circuit Judge Sykes, joined by Judge Hamilton, with Judge Posner dissenting.

In ACLU v. Alvarez (ND Ill.), a 66-page, 2-1 opinion, Circuit Judge Sykes writes:

The Illinois eavesdropping statute makes it a felony to audio record “all or any part of any conversation” unless all parties to the conversation give their consent. 720 ILL. COMP. STAT. 5/14-2(a)(1). The statute covers any oral communication regardless of whether the communication was intended to be private. Id. 5/14-1(d). The offense is normally a class 4 felony but is elevated to a class 1 felony—with a possible prison term of four to fifteen years—if one of the recorded individuals is performing duties as a law-enforcement officer. Id. 5/14-4(b). Illinois does not prohibit taking silent video of police officers performing their duties in public; turning on a microphone, however, triggers class 1 felony punishment.

The question here is whether the First Amendment prevents Illinois prosecutors from enforcing the eavesdropping statute against people who openly record police officers performing their official duties in public. More specifically, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (“ACLU”) challenges the statute as applied to the organization’s Chicago-area “police accountability program,” which includes a plan to openly make audiovisual recordings of police officers performing their duties in public places and speaking at a volume audible to bystanders. Concerned that its videographers would be prosecuted under the eavesdropping statute, the ACLU has not yet implemented the program. Instead, it filed this preenforcement action against Anita Alvarez, the Cook County State’s Attorney, asking for declaratory and injunctive relief barring her from enforcing the statute on these facts. The ACLU moved for a preliminary injunction.

Faced with so obvious a test case, the district court proceeded with some skepticism. The judge dismissed the complaint for lack of standing, holding that the ACLU had not sufficiently alleged a threat of prosecution. The ACLU tried again, submitting a new complaint addressing the court’s concerns. This time, the judge held that the ACLU had cured the original defect but had “not alleged a cognizable First Amendment injury” because the First Amendment does not protect a “right to audio record.” The judge denied leave to amend. The ACLU appealed.

We reverse and remand with instructions to allow the amended complaint and enter a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the eavesdropping statute as applied to audio recording of the kind alleged here. The Illinois eavesdropping statute restricts a medium of expression commonly used for the preservation and communication of information and ideas, thus triggering First Amendment scrutiny. Illinois has criminalized the nonconsensual recording of most any oral communication, including recordings of public officials doing the public’s business in public and regardless of whether the recording is open or surreptitious. Defending the broad sweep of this statute, the State’s Attorney relies on the government’s interest in protecting conversational privacy, but that interest is not implicated when police officers are performing their duties in public places and engaging in public communications audible to persons who witness the events. Even under the more lenient intermediate standard of scrutiny applicable to contentneutral burdens on speech, this application of the statute very likely flunks. The Illinois eavesdropping statute restricts far more speech than necessary to protect legitimate privacy interests; as applied to the facts alleged here, it likely violates the First Amendment’s freespeech and free-press guarantees. [ILB emphasis] * * *

Before closing, a brief response to a couple of points in the dissent. Our decision will not, as Judge Posner suggests, “cast[] a shadow over the electronic privacy statutes of other states.” Dissent at 54. As we have explained, the Illinois statute is a national outlier. See Alderman, Police Privacy in the iPhone Era?, supra note 4, at 533-45 (collecting state statutes). Most state electronic privacy statutes apply only to private conversations; that is, they contain (or are construed to include) an expectation-of-privacy requirement that limits their scope to conversations that carry a reasonable expectation of privacy. Others apply only to wiretapping, and some ban only surreptitious recording. Id. Indeed, the California statute discussed in the dissent is explicitly limited to “confidential communications,” a term specifically defined to exclude the kind of communications at issue here. If the Illinois statute contained a similar limitation, the link to the State’s privacy justification would be much stronger.

The dissent also takes us to task for giving insufficient consideration to the privacy interests of civilians who communicate with the police and for failing to grasp the extent to which people “say things in public that they don’t expect others around them to be listening to, let alone recording for later broadcasting.” Dissent at 63. To the contrary, we have acknowledged the importance of conversational privacy and heeded the basic distinction drawn in Katz that some conversations in public places implicate privacy and others do not. See Katz, 389 U.S. at 351. Again, the privacy interests that may justify banning audio recording are not limited to those that the Fourth Amendment secures against governmental intrusion. But the Illinois eavesdropping statute obliterates the distinction between private and nonprivate by criminalizing all nonconsensual audio recording regardless of whether the communication is private in any sense. 720 ILL. COMP. STAT. 5/14-1(d). If protecting privacy is the justification for this law, then the law must be more closely tailored to serve that interest in order to avoid trampling on speech and press rights.

For these reasons, we conclude that the ACLU has a strong likelihood of success on the merits of its First Amendment claim. The Illinois eavesdropping statute restricts an expressive medium used for the preservation and dissemination of information and ideas. On the factual premises of this case, the statute does not serve the important governmental interest of protecting conversational privacy; applying the statute in the circumstances alleged here is likely unconstitutional.

Accordingly, we reverse and remand with the following instructions: The district court shall reopen the case and allow the amended complaint; enter a preliminary injunction enjoining the State’s Attorney from applying the Illinois eavesdropping statute against the ACLU and its employees or agents who openly audio record the audible communications of law-enforcement officers (or others whose communications are incidentally captured) when the officers are engaged in their official duties in public places; and conduct such further proceedings as are consistent with this opinion.

[Judge Posner's dissent begins on p. 53 of 66. He concludes] Accuracy is a social value, and a recording of a conversation provides a more accurate record of the conversation than the recollection of the conversants: more accurate, and also more truthful, since a party to a conversation, including a police officer, may lie about what he heard or said. But on the other side of the balance are the inhibiting effect of nonconsensual recording of conversations on the number and candor of conversations (and hence on values that the First Amendment protects); the baleful effect on privacy; the negative effect on law enforcement; and the litigation likely to be engendered by police officers’ shooing away intruders on their private conversations with citizens. These are significant social costs, and the majority opinion offers no basis in fact or history, in theory or practice, in constitutional text or judicial precedent, for weighting them less heavily than the social value of recorded eavesdropping.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on May 8, 2012 01:08 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions