When discussing whether something is legal or not few people will actually go check with the source that provides the answer: the legal codes and the actual laws in question. This is understandable – it’s hard to wade through the dense legalese to find the right laws, assuming they’re even in the right place. If you’re like most people Google is probably your go-to source. Unfortunately, most of the results you’ll get from a Google search for something like “is recording police officers legal” are not entirely relevant.
When I did that search a post by the ACLU of Pennsylvania came up, which wasn’t too helpful since I’m not in Pennsylvania, along with a plethora of articles on things to tell police or about knowing your rights. One thing notably missing was any reference to any specific laws. Even the ACLU piece which says what you may and may not do fails to actually cite a single law to support their argument. This is pretty commonplace and is one of the main reasons we provide the full law texts in our ATLAS smartphone app.
For a moment, let’s assume you live in Mississippi and want to know the answer to this question. Adding “in Mississippi” to the search in the first paragraph of this post brings up guidelines and interpretations from the past 6 years, but no real answer. Laws change quite often and you need to know if making such a recording is considered legal today, not 5 years ago, so the Mississippi Code is best place to look.
Many states do not update their laws until well after their state Congress adjourns for the year, so let’s assume all of that has happened already and the code is current. Which of the 50 titles would you check under to find the relevant laws for the crime you might be committing for recording a police officer, eavesdropping? Do you check “Public Safety and Good Order”? Maybe “Crimes”?
You probably wouldn’t look under “Public Health”, but that’s where you find the article for “Interception of Wire or Oral Communications”(Title 41, Chapter 29 Article 7) aka eavesdropping, sandwiched right between “Other Narcotic Drug Regulations”(Title 41, Chapter 29 Article 5) and, also oddly located, “Pen Register”(Title 41, Chapter 29 Article 9) under the chapter for “Poisons, Drugs and Other Controlled Substances”(Title 41 Chapter 29).
If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for and where to find it, locating a specific law can be extremely difficult. While supposedly ordered by topic there are many instances where a law is somewhere you would never expect it to be.
Mississippi’s eavesdropping laws are not the only ones out of order – Oklahoma’s laws on the same subject are under that state’s “Common Carriers”(Title 13) title, which mostly addresses carrying passengers and luggage but changes course entirely after about 170 sections to address communication issues. It’s not just this subject either, for example Montana’s law allowing openly carrying a weapon(45-3-111) is oddly located in the chapter covering when you may legally kill an intruder or other criminal(Title 45 Chapter 3 Part 1).
If you don’t have a handy source providing the most current version of the laws at your fingertips it may be difficult to back up claims that what you are doing is legal if you are challenged. Even if you manage to memorize all the laws that are relevant to your life and know your knowledge is up to date good luck convincing someone else that your memory is accurate, especially if it is in the other person’s interests that you’re wrong. Only by carrying evidence that you are correct with you can you be assured of the law’s protections.