SJC upholds conviction of man who secretly taped police
By Denise Lavoie, Associated Press, 07/13/01
BOSTON -- The state's highest court on Friday upheld the conviction of a man who secretly recorded police after they pulled him over.
The Supreme Judicial Court in a split decision ruled that Michael Hyde violated the state's electronic surveillance law, which prohibits secret recordings.
But in a strongly worded dissent, two justices said the wiretapping statute was not meant to prevent citizens from recording an encounter with police.
Hyde, a rock musician, said he recorded Abington police because he thought they unfairly targeted him for a traffic stop on Oct. 26, 1998, because of his long hair, leather jacket and his sports car.
Hyde recorded officers using an obscenity, asking him if he had any cocaine in his car, and threatening to send him to jail.
Several days later, he brought the tape to police headquarters to try to prove he was harassed. Instead, police charged Hyde with unlawful wiretapping.
A jury took less than an hour to convict Hyde of breaking the electronic surveillance law. He was sentenced to six months of probation.
At Hyde's trial, police testified they pulled him over because of the loud revving of his car's engine, a noisy muffler and a broken license plate light.
The SJC rejected Hyde's argument that the law was not applicable because the police were performing their public duties and therefore had no reasonable expectation of privacy.
"We conclude that the Legislature intended (the law) strictly to prohibit all secret recordings by members of the public, including recordings of police officers or other public officials interacting with members of the public, when made without their permission or knowledge," Justice John M. Greaney wrote in the majority opinion.
Chief Justice Margaret Marshall and Justice Robert Cordy used the famous videotape of the Rodney King police beating in Los Angeles as an example of a recording that would have been prohibited under Massachusetts law.
Marshall said the purpose of the law was not to shield public officials from exposure of their wrongdoings.
"In our Republic, the actions of public officials taken in their public capacities are not protected from exposure. Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police," Marshall wrote.
Marshall also said the ruling threatens the ability of the media to do their job.
Hyde's lawyer, Peter Onek, had argued that police officers, acting in their official capacity, are not afforded the same protections from electronic surveillance as private citizens.
"We are very disappointed," Onek said Friday. "We think the decision is wrong and that the dissenting decision is right on target."
Onek said Hyde may take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Prosecutor Robert Thompson said the language of the law explicitly protects the privacy rights of all individuals, whether they are private citizens or police officers.
"How the dissent can suggest that police officers are no longer citizens is a little bit problematic to me," Thompson said.
David Yas, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, said the wiretapping law was established to protect citizens against government oppression.
"The preamble to the law said electronic devices are a danger to the privacy of all citizens. This case turns that notion on its head because here we had an individual trying to protect himself from a misdeed on the part of public officials and he's the one who ends up being arrested for it and prosecuted," Yas said.