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Saturday, May 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Eavesdropping Law in Illinois Put on Its Head

CHICAGO (CN) - Illinois cannot enforce a law that allows it to prosecute people for recording anything from a loud argument on the street to a political debate on a college quad, the state's top court said.

Annabel Melongo, a former employee of an embattled, now-dissolved charity, spent 18 months in jail facing charges that she violated the Illinois Eavesdropping Act, which requires a person to obtain the consent of anyone whose conversation he records.

After secretly recording her phone conversations with a Cook County court reporter and posting those tapes on a personal website, Melongo was charged in 2010. After her trial ended with a hung jury, the court found the statute unconstitutional.

In oral arguments this past January, the state denied that technological advances in recording have made the law obsolete. Melongo's attorneys meanwhile said public officials lack the same expectations of privacy as other people and that the broadly written law would undermine press freedom.

The unanimous Illinois Supreme Court affirmed for Melongo in a nine-page decision Thursday.

"The statute criminalizes the recording of conversations that cannot be deemed private: a loud argument on the street, a political debate on a college quad, yelling fans at an athletic event, or any conversation loud enough that the speakers should expect to be heard by others," Chief Justice Rita Garman wrote for the court. "None of these examples implicate privacy interests."

Garman also took issue with the law's failure to distinguish between open and secret recordings, noting that it criminalized even the open recording of a conversation without consent.

Characterizing Melongo as "an innocent party subject to a naked prohibition against disclosure," the court concluded that it is irrelevant "whether the contents of the recorded conversations were a matter of public interest because the recordings cannot be characterized as illegally obtained."

That Melongo's constitutional challenge was inconsistent with her initial defense to her criminal charges, which relied on exceptions within the statute, is immaterial, the court found.

"The state does not explain why a criminal defendant may not argue in the alternative that the statute under which she was charged is unconstitutional and, failing that, that an exception to the statute excused her conduct," Garman wrote.

Melongo has also sued the state in federal court for civil rights violations.

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