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In Mass., Recording an Arrest May Get You Arrested

This is one of our editors' picks from our ongoing roundup of Investigations Elsewhere.

Civil libertarians have pitted themselves against Massachusetts police in a battle over citizens' right to record on-duty police officers, reports the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. The police are abusing a state surveillance law, they say, and thwarting accountability.

On one side stand people like Jon Surmacz. Inspired by videos seen on YouTube, he used his cell phone to record Boston police officers using what he thought was unnecessary force to break up a party. Next thing he knew, he was arrested and charged with illegal surveillance.

Police, on the other hand, say that being recorded without their consent is a violation of privacy rights and the law. Massachusetts is one of 12 states that require all parties in a conversation to consent to being recorded.

In 2001, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-2 to uphold the illegal-wiretapping conviction of a man who secretly recorded an encounter with police in 1998. The chief justice dissented, saying: "Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police. Their role cannot be performed if citizens must fear criminal reprisals when they seek to hold government officials responsible by recording, secretly recording on occasion, an interaction between a citizen and a police officer."

Since that ruling, such arrests have continued to occur, according to the article. Those cases are generally determined by whether the citizen has recorded the police openly or in secret. With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, Surmacz got his charges dropped because he had not attempted to hide his cell phone.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has not weighed in on the debate, calling it an issue for the courts.

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