The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office wrongly charged a man with violating state wiretap law for recording police with a cell phone, the American Civil Liberties Union claimed in a federal lawsuit Thursday.
The ACLU said law enforcement agents in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County in particular, have been misapplying the wiretap law.
“Unfortunately, many Pennsylvania law enforcement officers don’t understand that the courts have said the state wiretapping law cannot be applied to punish people for recording police actions in public,” Glen Downey, an attorney involved in the suit, said in a statement.
The suit was filed on behalf of Elijah Matheny, of Pittsburgh, in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh. It seeks unspecified damages, claiming police violated his civil rights.
According to the suit, Matheny and a friend were looking in a trash container for useable items thrown out by University of Pittsburgh students leaving for the semester in late April.
A university property manager called police, who asked Matheny and his friend for identification. Matheny presented his, but when his friend said she didn’t have any, police handcuffed her briefly while they checked her name. Matheny made an audio and video recording of the incident.
An officer arrested Matheny for recording his voice without permission, the suit said. While Matheny was being held in a university holding cell, the officer checked with the district attorney’s office, where an on-duty district attorney advised that Matheny had broken the wiretap law.
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Isn’t it contradictory to say that we have no expectation of privacy in public, but the police have an expectation of privacy from recording their public actions?