|Video recording leads to felony charge
The Patriot-News | June 11, 2007
Brian D. Kelly didn't think he was doing anything illegal when he used his videocamera to record a Carlisle police officer during a traffic stop. Making movies is one of his hobbies, he said, and the stop was just another interesting event to film.
Now he's worried about going to prison or being burdened with a criminal record.
Kelly, 18, of Carlisle, was arrested on a felony wiretapping charge, with a penalty of up to 7 years in state prison.
His camera and film were seized by police during the May 24 stop, he said, and he spent 26 hours in Cumberland County Prison until his mother posted her house as security for his $2,500 bail.
Kelly is charged under a state law that bars the intentional interception or recording of anyone's oral conversation without their consent.
The criminal case relates to the sound, not the pictures, that his camera picked up.
"I didn't think I could get in trouble for that," Kelly said. "I screwed up, yeah. I know now that I can't do that. I just don't see how something like this should affect my entire life."
Whether that will happen could be determined during Kelly's preliminary hearing before District Judge Jessica Brewbaker in July.
No one seems intent on punishing him harshly.
"Obviously, ignorance of the law is no defense," District Attorney David Freed said. "But often these cases come down to questions of intent."
According to police, Kelly was riding in a pickup truck that had been stopped for alleged traffic violations.
Police said the officer saw Kelly had a camera in his lap, aimed at him and was concealing it with his hands. They said Kelly was arrested after he obeyed an order to turn the camera off and hand it over.
The wiretap charge was filed after consultation with a deputy district attorney, police said.
Kelly said his friend was cited for speeding and because his truck's bumper was too low. He said he held the camera in plain view and turned it on when the officer yelled at his pal.
After about 20 minutes, the officer cited the driver on the traffic charges and told the men they were being recorded by a camera in his cruiser, Kelly said.
"He said, 'Young man, turn off your ... camera,'¤" Kelly said. "I turned it off and handed it to him. ... Six or seven more cops pulled up, and they arrested me."
Police also took film from his pockets that wasn't related to the traffic stop, he said.
Freed said his office has handled other wiretapping cases, some involving ex-lovers or divorcing couples who are trying to record former partners doing something improper for leverage in court battles, he said.
Such charges have been dismissed or defendants have been allowed to plead to lesser counts or enter a program to avoid criminal records, he said.
The outcome hinges on whether the person had a malicious intent, Freed said.
Carlisle Police Chief Stephen Margeson said allowing Kelly to plead to a lesser charge might be proper.
"I don't think that would cause anyone any heartburn," he said. "I don't believe there was any underlying criminal intent here."
But Margeson said he doesn't regard the filing of the felony charge as unwarranted and said the officer followed procedures.
John Mancke, a Harrisburg defense attorney familiar with the wiretapping law, said the facts, as related by police, indicate Kelly might have violated the law.
"If he had the sound on, he has a problem," Mancke said.
Last year, Mancke defended a North Middleton Twp. man in a street racing case that involved a wiretapping charge. Police claimed the man ordered associates to tape police breaking up an illegal race after officers told him to turn off their cameras.
That wiretapping count was dismissed when the man pleaded guilty to charges of illegal racing, defiant trespass and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to probation.
An exception to the wiretapping law allows police to film people during traffic stops, Mancke said.
Margeson said his department's cruisers are equipped with cameras, and officers are told to inform people during incidents that they are being recorded.
First Assistant District Attorney Jaime Keating said case law is in flux as to whether police can expect not to be recorded while performing their duties.
"The law isn't solid," Keating said. "But people who do things like this do so at their own peril."
Kelly said he has called the American Civil Liberties Union for help in the case.
His father, Chris, said he's backing his son.
"We're hoping for a just resolution," he said.