MCCRC revised its formal position on proposed body camera legislation from opposition to SB482 to “favorable with amendments” for HB627— the best of three body camera bills considered by the House Judiciary Committee. (The text of our statement is reproduced at the end of this post.)
We did so after closer consideration of the competing alternatives, and the fact that body cameras are currently in use in Maryland without any state guidelines whatsoever. Both our praises of and concerns about HB627 remain the same; our March 12th testimony simply elaborated more fully on the concerns we have.
On the plus side, HB627/SB482 would have…
- established clear protocols for turning on and off body cameras, rather than leaving that at the officer’s or police department’s discretion — essential if body cameras are to serve an accountability role
- prohibited use of body cameras when police were present at constitutionally protected activities, e.g. demonstrations or religious services — essential if free speech is not to be chilled
But even HB627…
- didn’t establish storage time limits — considered essential by the national ACLU
- made it far too easy to review footage for non-complaint related reasons — potentially turning body camera systems into a Trojan Horse for surveillance purposes
- didn’t clearly establish restrictions on sharing data with other agencies — a real and growing concern as Joint Terrorism Task Forces and federal agencies vacuum up local police data
- focused on restrictions on stored data only, not on live, streaming data as well — potentially a significant regulatory loophole.
If none of the proposed bills this session were to become law, that would keep Maryland law enforcement body camera regulations in an unregulated status quo – perhaps salutarily chilling wider use of a problematic technology and public policy. That’s because the status quo features at least some uncertainty whether body camera use by police is legal under Maryland’s Eavesdropping Act, which prohibits recording conversations without consent. Getting an exception to that law was a major, stated goal of police advocates at the March 12th hearing — and, we suspect, of body camera vendors. Unfortunately, they’re on their way to succeeding without any corresponding legislative control of how body cameras are implemented.
On the other hand, (1) body cameras are fervently supported by many of our friends and allies, (2) the uncertainty under the Eavesdropping Act was modest and might have been ended by some court case in the near future — and (3) it’s always regrettable when the Maryland legislature doesn’t fully exercise the authority it needs to in regulating a technology like body cameras. As we’ve stated before, let the conversation continue.
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