Smile! You’re on Citizen Camera.
In early March, Maryland motorcyclist Anthony Graber was speeding down I-95, doing 80 and popping wheelies. An unmarked gray sedan cut him off, and a driver dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans emerged, pulling out a gun.
It turns out it was a plainclothes Maryland state trooper, who cited Graber for his violations. Graber accepted the ticket, which he admitted he had earned. The trooper acted appropriately and professionally.
But Graber has a camera mounted to the top of his helmet, and he decided to put the episode up on YouTube. A month later, six cops raided his parents’ home, where Graber lived with his wife and kids. Prosecutors had obtained a grand jury indictment, alleging that Graber had violated Maryland’s state wiretap laws.
That law, which dates back to the 1970s, requires all parties to consent before a recording is made. It led to Linda Tripp’s Maryland indictment (later dropped) during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. D.C. and Virginia do not have such a law.
While that law applies to audio recordings -- we didn’t have phones in our pockets in the disco days, let alone ones with tiny video cameras inside them -- prosecutors say the spirit of the law applies to today’s advanced technology.
They’re right -- but that just shows that the law is wrong.
We live in a time when technology makes accountability easier to achieve. Though the idea of everyone toting cameras around, recording every interaction, may seem a tad Orwellian, it’s really a way to balance the field when there are security cameras everywhere, and our photos are snapped at every red light.
Those in authority are recording us all the time. Some citizens are striking back.
Graber didn’t have much of a case against the officer who cited him. Graber was breaking the law, and the officer followed protocol. But modern technology has helped others who were breaking no laws to protect themselves against aggressive authority.
One famous case came up last year at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, when Steven Bierfeldt, the development director of the Campaign for Liberty, a libertarian group, was detained by the Transportation Security Administration because he was carrying a large amount of cash.
Bierfeldt politely and calmly asked TSA officers if he was required by law to answer their questions. They responded with threats and obscene language -- and the story only got out because Bierfeldt had recorded the entire interrogation on his iPhone.
Closer to home, Fairfax County Public Schools security officer Wesley Cheeks Jr.singled out a peaceful demonstrator outside a town hall forum on healthcare hosted by Rep. James Moran last summer because Cheeks didn’t like the man’s sign. Though several others were also protesting, Cheeks approached this one man and threatened him trespassing charges. When the activist said he was engaged in legal protest, Cheeks replied, "I’ll charge you with whatever I want to charge you with."
Again, this story only got out because someone recorded it. And just today, there’s a story in the news about a Seattle police officer punching a 17-year-old who shoved him -- a story making the rounds on video. Was it justified? That's the great thing about video -- you can decide for yourself.
Maryland’s outdated law was meant to protect citizens against secret recording -- a defense of their privacy. But in 2010, it has been turned on itself to protect those in power against citizens trying to ensure that their side of the story can be heard.
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