Prosecutor Defends Traffic-Stop Privacy...For Police

Anthony Graber is the 25-year-old Maryland motorcyclist charged with invading the privacy of a state trooper he filmed during a traffic stop. The prosecutor behind the charges says police have a right to privacy that he's willing to enforce.

Graber's case has become a national cause among libertarians. The Maryland National Guard sergeant admits he was speeding in April down Interstate 95 on his Honda CBR 1000RR. A man in a grey sweater jumped from his car in a traffic stop and pulled a gun on Graber, ordering him off the motorcycle. He then identified himself as a Maryland State Police trooper Joseph Uhler.

Graber was recording the stop with a camera mounted on his helmet. After posting the videos on YouTube, police raided the home Graber shared with his parents, taking four computers and eventually arresting him on a charge of violating Maryland's wiretapping law for recording the trooper's voice without his consent. The maximum sentence is 16 years in prison.

Since then, the Maryland attorney general's office has warned that it's unlikely the charges against Graber would stand. Other legal experts have weighed in on Graber's side; the American Civil Liberties Union says there's no "single court anywhere in the country that has found an expectation of privacy for an officer in such circumstances."

But Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly told Reason the trooper had a right to privacy, even though the stop happened on a freeway offramp in broad daylight:

"The officer having his gun drawn or being on a public roadway has nothing to do with it," Cassilly says. "Neither does the fact that what Mr. Graber said during the stop could be used in court. That's not the test. The test is whether police officers can expect some of the conversations they have while on the job to remain private and not be recorded and replayed for the world to hear."

The test Cassilly offers people who attempt to record police work doesn't come with an answer key:

"I don't have any hard and fast rule I can give you," Cassilly says. "It depends on the circumstances, and if the officer in those circumstances had good reason to think he wouldn't be recorded. Should a domestic violence victim have a camera shoved in her face and have her privacy violated because someone is following a police officer around with a camera? ... I'm saying that not everything a police officer does on the job should be for public consumption."

What's striking is that this increasing concern for the privacy of public officials comes as police officers develop new ways to record their side of the story, such as flashlights that double as cameras.

And the boundary of what's public and private gets blurrier; the D.C. appeals court recently threw out evidence in a drug case based on a GPS unit that was left on a suspect's Jeep for a month without a warrant. It shouldn't take a phalanx of navigation satellites to find the right side of the law.

[Via Reason; Photography Is Not A Crime]