Civil Liberties

Watching the Watchers

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Another arrest for videotaping police officers on the job. And this kid's being charged with a felony:

Brian D. Kelly didn't think he was doing anything illegal when he used his videocamera to record a Carlisle police officer during a traffic stop. Making movies is one of his hobbies, he said, and the stop was just another interesting event to film.

Now he's worried about going to prison or being burdened with a criminal record.

Kelly, 18, of Carlisle, was arrested on a felony wiretapping charge, with a penalty of up to 7 years in state prison.

He violated a state law that forbids sound recording of another person without their consent—in this case, the police officer. The law of course exempt the police from recording citizens without consent. The individual officer apparently called for backup after seeing the camera, which Kelly turned over willingly after the officer's first request. Six more cars pulled up to make the arrest.

The DA and chief of police say Kelly will likely be permitted to plea to lesser charges. But that misses the point. The police are public servants. They're entrusted with enormous responsibility, including the ability to use lethal force. It should never be prohibited for a citizen to record them while they're on duty. Consider this line from one of the prosecutors:

First Assistant District Attorney Jaime Keating said case law is in flux as to whether police can expect not to be recorded while performing their duties.

"The law isn't solid," Keating said. "But people who do things like this do so at their own peril."

That's a pretty chilling statement: You hold the police accountable at your own peril.

Kelly's asking the ACLU for help. I'm surprised a case challenging laws prohibiting the taping of police hasn't already made it to the Supreme Court. On the surface, this one seems like a good test case. Then again, given the current lineup of the Court, perhaps now's not the best time to seek out a precedent.