Cops don't seem to like getting caught on camera.
Anthony John Graber III of Harford County is finding that out the hard way. His rapid and possibly reckless motorcycle trip up Interstate 95 has landed the systems engineer in more trouble than a speeding ticket.
The 24-year-old Graber is facing criminal charges after the Internet posting of a video he recorded on his helmet-mounted camera during a March 5 traffic stop.
When a state trooper saw the 23-second clip on YouTube 10 days after the stop, police got a warrant, searched Graber's parents' house in Abingdon, seized his equipment and charged him with violating the state's unusually restrictive wiretapping law. It's illegal in Maryland to capture audio without the other person's consent, and Trooper J.D. Uhler said he didn't know he was being recorded.
Graber's supporters have taken to the Internet themselves, complaining that Uhler's actions resembled a carjacking more than a legitimate police stop. They note that the trooper was driving an unmarked car and was in plainclothes, brandishing a gun and taking about five seconds before he identified himself as a cop.
But a state police spokesman said a marked cruiser driven by a uniformed trooper also participated in the stop, which occurred after authorities said Graber was speeding in excess of 100 mph, riding on one wheel, weaving through traffic and cutting off a passenger bus. Spokesman Gregory M. Shipley denied that Ulher is seeking revenge by pursuing charges related to the video.
"This is not some capricious retribution," said Shipley, calling Graber the type of reckless driver troopers "are peeling … off the backs of tractor-trailers and off the curbs." He said the audio recording of the traffic stop "is a violation of the law. Period. That's what our job is. We're not going to apologize for doing our job."
Graber's case has become a minor sensation among civil libertarians and posters to blogs and message boards, who accuse police of trying to punish someone because they've been embarrassed by publicity over the aggressive traffic stop.
It also illustrates how the ubiquitous presence of cameras clashes with state laws written for a very different set of circumstances, to prevent prevent intentionally intercepting the conversation of another person or secretly taping a telephone conversation.
Capturing the ugly side of policing
Recording people in places where there is no expectation of privacy, such as a public street, doesn't seem to fit the traditional understanding of a wiretap, which conjures up images of hidden microphones and FBI agents huddled in vans listening to mobsters plot murders.
Cameras have become a part of daily life. Many mobile devices can record video, and police in cities around the country, including Baltimore, blanket streets with hundreds of cameras. Police officers in many departments around the state have cameras mounted on their dashboards to record traffic stops. Detectives in Baltimore County record homicide interrogations, for which there is an exemption under the Maryland's wiretapping law.
Video has been used to help show jurors that suspects do confess without being beaten and to quickly put down false allegations made by citizens. In fact, many police chiefs say video more often than not clears officers of wrongdoing, ending "he-said, she-said" complaints.
But cameras have also shown the uglier side of policing — a fierce berating by a Baltimore officer of a teenage skateboarder at the Inner Harbor, Prince George's County tactical officers beating a College Park student during an out-of-control street celebration and a D.C. cop pulling his gun while charging a playful snowball fight.
"I tell guys that we're always on camera now," said Shipley, the spokesman for Maryland troopers. "Someone somewhere has a camera, and you are to remember that and are to act professionally at all times. This is part of everyday life in our society now, and it's a part of policing."
Still, despite the prevalence of recording devices, charges for violating the state law are relatively rare.
I asked Baltimore criminal defense attorney Steven D. Silverman whether he's ever seen Maryland wiretap law used the way it's being used against Graber. "Never, never, never," he said. And while he said prosecutors appear to be applying the law correctly, he noted, "I guess it's more of the 'contempt of cop' than the violation of the wiretapping law."
Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said his officers have little time to worry about legions of videographers. "We're focused on going after bad guys with guns," he told me. "We're not focused on going after citizens with video cameras."
Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Police Chief Darrel Stephens, past president of a national police chiefs' group and now a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Police Executive Research Program, said that "it's very unusual for police to go after somebody for that. … That's a fairly aggressive response."
So why is Shipley's department pushing the case against Graber for recording his own traffic stop? Well, for one thing, this was no ordinary traffic stop.
It was about 4:30 in the afternoon when Uhler said a red motorcycle sped by him heading north on I-95 topping 100 mph "while riding a wheelie and passing several vehicles," according to the charging document.
A uniformed trooper in a marked vehicle joined the effort to stop Graber on the exit ramp to Route 543 in Abingdon. Uhler pulled in front of the motorcycle, jumped out of the car and pulled out his gun. The trooper wrote in charging documents: "The motorcycle operator began to back up while simultaneously revving the engine above idle."
Uhler never aimed the gun at Graber as he approached. The video shows him yelling "Get off the motorcycle" three times and "state police" once. He holstered his weapon after it was clear that the motorcyclist was compliant. Troopers wrote him a ticket charging him with traveling 80 mph in a 65-mph zone.
Uhler wrote in court documents that he "observed a strange looking object on the operator's helmet that was later realized to be a video camera." Shipley said that Uhler asked Graber if he was recording and that Graber told him no. The spokesman also noted that the clip doesn't show the uniformed trooper, which he said has led critics on the Internet to falsely assume that Graber didn't imediately know Uhler was a police officer.
Graber declined to talk to me; his mother told me her son has been advised by his attorney not to speak about the case. He had posted two videos on YouTube — one filmed as he sped up 95 and passed the unmarked trooper's vehicle. That three-minutevideo has since been removed from the website, leaving only the 23-second segment showing Uhler and titled "Motorcycle traffic violation — Cop pulls out gun."
Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly makes no apologies for seeking a wiretap-related indictment against Graber.
"It seems to me that that the taping was done deliberately to provoke some sort of response from police so he could turn around and use it against the police," he said. "I mean, who rides a motorcycle with a helmet cam on and flies up 95 like that unless you're trying to orchestrate contact with the police and instigate some issue."
Cassilly said he has charged two other people for using their cell phones to tape traffic stops in Havre de Grace. "They just didn't go on the Internet to complain about it," he said.
If you don't like the law, Cassilly said, complain to state lawmakers. "If they pass a law, you can't get all bent out shape when the law is enforced," he told me. Just the same, he said, the law might have been overtaken by technological advances.
"I'm waiting for Annapolis to catch up on a lot of issues," he told me.
Until it does, if you want hit the record button, also learn to hit mute.