Liberty Is Imperiled When Men Hide Behind Bad Laws

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When taping your own traffic stop becomes illegal

By: Scott Cochran, Editor

Last March Anthony Graber was riding his Ducati in Maryland on I-95 in an illegal and unsafe manner. That is not disputed. In fact, Graber was recording himself with a video camera on his helmet.

Because of that video, Graber might be going to jail. Not for reckless riding, but for illegally taping the police officers who stopped him.

The bruhaha began when Graber posted the video on YouTube. In it, Graber pulls off an exit where he’s stopped by traffic and a plain unmarked car pulls up beside him and a white male jumps out with a handgun and quickly approaches him yelling to turn off the motorcycle. It is approximately 5 seconds before the plainclothes police officer identifies himself, and a few seconds after that a marked unit pulls up behind Graber.

When Graber is allowed to take his gear off, he turns off the video recorder, but when asked by the officer if he was being recorded, he denies it was on. I can only conjecture that he believed the recording would have been confiscated had he admitted the officer was taped.

Once posted online, Maryland State Police sought to prosecute Graber for “illegally wiretapping police activity” and sent a request to the State’s Attorney in Harford County.

Graber was arrested again and charged with a wiretap felony and could spend years in prison if convicted.

Within days of the story breaking online, civil libertarians and bloggers lit up the internet like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

A spokesman for the State Police deny the wiretap charge is retaliation for Graber having exposed the department’s heavy handed Gestapo type actions.

“This is not some capricious retribution,” said Shipley, calling Graber the type of reckless driver troopers “are peeling … off the backs of tractor-trailers and off the curbs.” He said the audio recording of the traffic stop “is a violation of the law. Period. That’s what our job is. We’re not going to apologize for doing our job.”

And there’s where I have a problem with it.

The attitude of “It’s the law and we’re not going to apologize for doing our job.”

What prosecutors in Maryland are using is a law written to prevent “voice” recordings. Had Graber deleted the audio portion, or garbled it before he posted it, then he wouldn’t be in trouble.

As a former plan clothes police officer I can appreciate the situation the Maryland State Police find themselves in, but the public should have the right to record traffic stops, the same as law enforcement. The plain-clothes officer gave up his rights to anonymity when he took himself out of the role of detective/investigator and participated in the traffic pursuit.

There are thousands of hard working, honest and dedicated law enforcement officers who risk their lives on a daily basis to protect and serve the citizens in their jurisdictions. This is by no means a slur on their character and integrity.

However, when men in authority seek to hide behind immoral laws to protect their ambitions, or to justify bad behavior, then it becomes the duty of free men to demand the law be changed.

My problem is with a law that disregards the civil rights of individuals, while providing those in authority with the legal means to prevent oversight by the public. Laws, such as these, foster and even encourage abuse of power, all in the name of “we’re just doing our job.”

This law, written with the intent to protect law enforcement, judges and officers of the court from illegal wiretaps and electronic eavesdropping without their consent was never meant to prevent private citizens from recording the activities of police in a public venue.

To misuse this statute in this manner is ethically and morally wrong. To stand by without protesting its use is also morally wrong.

But, let’s be clear on one thing, Graber was breaking the law. I watched his YouTube video and I think his actions on his motorcycle were irresponsible and criminal. He placed himself and others at great risk. High speed pursuits are dangerous to the public and the police officers who are involved in them.

Charge him with every traffic violation he committed. If combined they reach the level of felony endangerment and he loses his license and his freedom, then so be it. But to jail him for posting a video online he recorded in plain view on a public highway is not only wrong, it is a violation of his civil rights, and one that should outrage every American.

As for the plain-clothes officer who approached Graber with his gun drawn before identifying himself, he should be reprimanded. Nothing more or less. He was overzealous, but that’s it. Maybe next time he’ll let the uniform officers do their job and he’ll stick to his.

The greatest threat to our democracy does not come from without, but from within. We must jealously safeguard our liberties and protest vigorously when they are threatened.

Until next month, Ride Safe, and always take the road less traveled.