Student’s Felony Eavesdropping Charges Dropped

A Manteno Middle School student no longer faces Class-4 felony charges for violating the state’s eavesdropping law after the prosecution dismissed his indictment at a hearing in the Kankakee County Courthouse.

Charges were initially filed against the student after he surreptitiously recorded audio of a disciplinary meeting with his principal and assistant principal at school last February. After a 10-minute confrontation between the student and administrators, the student informed them that he had been recording their conversation with his cellphone.

In Illinois, the law requires that all parties consent to recording a conversation. 720 ILCS 5/14-2. Violation of the law is a class 4 felony carrying a minimum jail sentence of one year. 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-45(a). Board policy at Manteno Community Unit School District No. 5 included specific prohibitions against students recording conversations with other students, but was silent as to recordings of student-faculty conversations.

Illinois’ approach to eavesdropping has often faced criticism, and differs from federal law and a majority of other states, which allow for one-party consent. In 2014, after the Illinois Supreme Court held the prior eavesdropping law unconstitutional, the Illinois General Assembly overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 1342, a revised version of the law, voting 106-7 in the House and 46-4 in the Senate. The new statute retained the all-party consent requirement, but narrowed the types of covered “private conversations” to mean only “oral communication between 2 or more persons . . . when one or more of the parties intended the communication to be of a private nature under circumstances reasonably justifying that expectation.” 720 ILCS 5/14-1(d).

In this case, there was some dispute as to whether the interaction fell within the revised statute’s definition of a “private conversation.” The student maintained that the entire conversation occurred within an area of the school’s administrative offices that was available to others, and that the door to the hallway had remained open.

Speaking to the Daily Journal, Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe made it clear that he believes further revision to Illinois eavesdropping law is necessary. “I hope Springfield addresses this statute,” Rowe is quoted as saying, “law enforcement needs clarity as they are tasked with making decisions on the front lines; it is easy to second guess prosecutors and police, but all state laws come from Springfield and they need to clean this one up.” The Illinois Policy Institute funded the student’s defense, and David Camic, a Senior Fellow at the Institute and Elgin attorney, coordinated the student’s legal case.

This case’s dismissal raises more questions than it answers. When does someone have a “reasonable” expectation of privacy? What does such an expectation look like in the public school setting? Will the state legislature be able to maintain its support for an all-party consent eavesdropping rule despite what seems to be unresolved tension between constitutional protections for speech and privacy?

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