A police officer on a public road has a right to privacy?!

In March 2010 motorcyclist Anthony Graber ripped down I-95 in Maryland on his crotch-rocket, hitting speeds of up to 127 mph, and popping a wheelie at almost 100 mph while passing a bus. Not a poster child for highway safety. Admittedly a boneheaded display of highway recklessness by any standard. I do mean “admittedly.” Admitted how? A camera mounted on Graber’s motorcycle helmet captured the whole thing. How do I know? Because he posted the video on YouTube.

In addition to his driving prowess, the camera also captured his subsequent encounter with a Maryland State police officer. But this is where the story gets interesting. Graber’s helmet cam shows him looking backward on the off-ramp, revealing one or two cars behind him (hard to make out in the video). One of the cars behind him may be a marked police cruiser. No sound in the video at this point, so it’s hard to tell if there is a siren or not. He looks forward again and pulls his bike to the side of the road. At this point a grey sedan comes up from the right side and cuts him off, nearly hitting him. A man jumps out of the unmarked car, looking quite normal except for the aggressive posture and agitated look on his face. Oh yeah, and the handgun he brandishes as he moves rapidly toward Graber. In response, Graber starts backing up his bike. (Graber stated later that he assumed he was about to be shot.) Over the next five seconds, the armed man approaches Graber, grabs the handlebars and yells, “Get off the motorcycle” three times. Finally he says, “State Police.”

Graber got written up for speeding, as he should have been. Then he posted the encounter on YouTube, inducing the State of Maryland to invade his home, seize four computers, and charge Graber with violating state wiretapping laws as well as a law against “recording illegal activity.” George Orwell and I cry out in unison, “Are you state officials as nuts as you appear onscreen?!”

The case went to trial in September 2010 in Harford County Circuit Court where governmental common sense made its first appearance. Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. dropped all charges except for the traffic violations. He stated, “Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public. When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation.” Thank you, Judge Plitt!

The question at the heart of this case concerns the reasonable expectation of privacy that should be afforded a police officer in the execution of his or her responsibilities in a public setting. My take? Let’s start with none and work up from there.