Supreme Failure: Chicago’s Anita Alvarez and the Campaign To Criminalize Citizen Monitoring of Police

mosaic_anita143x176Below is my column today in the Sunday Chicago Tribune on the recent denial of review by the Supreme Court in the Illinois eavesdropping case that we discussed earlier.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez ended up empty-handed last week — and all of Chicago can celebrate. Alvarez lost a U.S. Supreme Court mission that would likely surprise most citizens of this progressive city Chicagoans: to strip them of their First Amendment rights and to allow her to prosecute citizens for videotaping police in public.

Alvarez’s position was denounced as extremist by a federal appellate court and civil libertarians around the country. However, she refused to yield to the courts, to the Constitution or to the public — making Chicago a leader of a national effort to bar the use of a technology widely considered the single most important deterrent of police abuse. Alvarez is not alone in this ignoble mission, and this threat to the public is not likely to pass with her latest defeat.

It was 21 years ago that a citizen filmed the savage beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed car chase. The most chilling fact in the King case was that, absent the videotape, this would have likely been dismissed as another unsupported claim of police abuse.

Since that time, numerous acts of abuse by police have been captured by citizens — exposing false charges and excessive force often in direct contradiction to sworn statements of officers. These cases have increased exponentially with the explosion of cellphones with videotaping capabilities. Chicago has seen a long litany of such cases.

WBEZ-cop-videoLast month, the Chicago Police Department settled a case with an alleged gang member who alleged that Officers Susana La Casa and Luis Contreras took him to the turf of a rival gang and allowed Latin King gang members to taunt and threaten him. It is the type of case that would ordinarily be dismissed on the word of the officers, who allegedly gave false statements regarding the case. Lawyers for Miguel “Mikey” Castillo, however, found a videotape from a witness showing the officers laughing as Castillo cowered in their police SUV. It is the type of act that Alvarez argued should have been a crime — not the police harassment (which her office declined to prosecute) but the filming of the police harassment.

The same is true for the still-pending case of Brad Williams, who filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department in 2011 after he claimed to have been beaten by police in response to his filming an officer holding and dragging a man outside his squad car. Williams was told by officers that it was illegal to film police in public — the position advocated by Alvarez.

Loyola University Chicago professor Ralph Braseth was told the same thing in November 2011. Braseth was also videotaping an arrest as a journalist when he was detained and told that he was committing a crime. He was let go but not before a Chicago police officer deleted his video.

There remains a striking contradiction in the policies of Chicago officials. While Alvarez and others are pushing for the arrest of citizens who photograph police in public, Chicago authorities are also pushing for more and more cameras to videotape citizens in public. Thus, an American Civil Liberties Union report estimated more than 10,000 surveillance cameras are linked throughout the city to allow police to monitor citizens while Alvarez is trying to imprison people who monitor police in public.

When the latest case went before the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the panel described Alvarez’s arguments as “extreme” in arguing that citizens filming police in public is “wholly unprotected by the First Amendment.” Alvarez did not have to adopt such an extreme position and she did not have to seek a reversal from the Supreme Court. Yet, she sought to overturn a decision by Judge Diane Sykes that chastised her for disregarding “the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-press guarantees.”

Alvarez, however, was not without one supporter on the court. Judge Richard Posner admonished the ACLU lawyer who sought to defend the rights of citizens and journalists. In oral arguments, Posner interrupted the ACLU lawyers after just 14 words stating, “Yeah, I know. But I’m not interested, really, in what you want to do with these recordings of people’s encounters with the police.” He then stated openly what is usually left unstated by those seeking to jail citizens: “Once all this stuff can be recorded, there’s going to be a lot more of this snooping around by reporters and bloggers. … I’m always suspicious when the civil liberties people start telling the police how to do their business.”

Alvarez and others appear to share the same suspicion and hostility. Across the country, police and prosecutors continue to arrest or harass citizens who film police — even after numerous courts have stated that such filming is a protected constitutional right.

The latest such case occurred last week in California. Daniel J. Saulmon was filming an arrest when he was stopped by a police officer demanding his identification and an explanation — neither of which Saulmon was inclined to give since he was engaged in a clearly lawful activity. The officer promptly arrested him, and he was held in jail for four days — ultimately charged with resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer. The video shows Saulmon standing at a distance from the arrest and never resisting in any way.

As a native Chicagoan, it was distressing to see the Cook County state’s attorney seek the reduction of guarantees of free speech and free press. With a crime wave sweeping the city and daily murders recounted in national media, one would think that Alvarez would have a few things more important to attend to than stripping away the rights of the citizens that she swore to protect.

Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University and editor-in-chief of the legal blog

Date: Chicago Tribune, December 2, 2012

37 thoughts on “Supreme Failure: Chicago’s Anita Alvarez and the Campaign To Criminalize Citizen Monitoring of Police

  1. We need not only court decisions affirming the right to film police, but laws passed with stiff penalties for police officers who try to prevent it. Good, honest cops ought to welcome video cameras–if they’re doing their job right, the videos will protect THEM as much as the people they’re arresting.

  2. Will someone please run against Alvarez! Her statements after Dan Webb’s
    report about police obstruction involving R.J. Vanecko were incredible and evidently not credible. How did she ever get in?

  3. Saw Anita Alvarez tonight on the 60 Minutes piece about forced confessions in Chicago.

    Alvarez came across as a corrupt, incompetent idiot. She belongs in Texas, frying innocent people. I feel sorry for the people of Chicago.

  4. Jeff,

    I’m no fan of Alvarez, but isn’t praying for her to be raped and beaten and for her attackers to go free a bit much?

    Not to mention, if you’re a Christian following the whole “God is love” idea and the Golden Rule, don’t you think praying for something like that is not only counterproductive but contradictory? If you’re praying to Satan or some other comparably evil imaginary figure, sure – go for it. But I don’t recall reading the Parable of the Rapists in any of the various gospels.

    Just a thought.

    • Jeff:

      I have removed your comment pursuant to our civility policy. While usually enforced against comments made to other commentators, the rape comment direct at Alvarez was, as Gene noted, completely out of line. Regardless of how one feels about Alvarez and her controversial policies, wishing that someone is raped is offensive and obnoxious. I understand that you are simply expressing your anger, but I have to ask that you express such feelings in more productive and civil ways. We value all of our readers and commentators, but this blog is one of the few places on the Internet where we try to maintain civil and respectful discourse.

      Jonathan Turley

  5. Anyone catch her marvelous performance on 60 minutes last night? DNA evidence exonerated a group of kids charged with rape & murder. Not a bit of evidence tied the kids to the crime but DNA taken from inside the victims body was that of a known rapist/murder. The kids had been bullied into signing confessions, none of which matched by the way, and spent 15 years in prison.

    And there she was, saying despite the total lack of evidence against them & the presence of evidence the crime had been committed by a man know for that type of crime she was just positive they were still guilty.

    I turned to my wife & asked “Do you think she is really that stupid or does she just hope we are?”

    • “Do you think she is really that stupid or does she just hope we are?”


      She is ignorant, which is different from stupid. Stupid is a learning deficit, Ignorance is the inability to absorb information that doesn’t agree with your preconceptions. I would say she’s smart enough to get where she is, but that also she is profoundly ignorant and is not fit for her job.

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