U.S. Supreme Court to Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin Residents: Go Ahead and Record Police

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling refusing to hear the Illinois state government’s appeal of a court decision that blocked the state from prosecuting citizens who record the police.  For citizens under the jurisdiction of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin), the Supreme Court’s decision means that it is basically unconstitutional for residents to be prosecuted for recording police in the performance of public duties, for example, when citizens are pulled over, arrested, or otherwise stopped, at least under any law that resembles the one at issue in this case.

The Illinois state government had previously sought to punish residents via the “Illinois Eavesdropping Act,” enacted in 1961, which made it a Class 1 Felony, punishable by 4-15 years in prison, to record police on the job.  A lawsuit was brought by the ACLU of Illinois (ACLU v. Alvarez), arguing that the Illinois Eavesdropping Act was unconstitutional and in violation of civil rights, including citizens’ First Amendment rights. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which oversees appeals in the Chicago and Cook County area (as well as Indiana and Wisconsin), agreed and refused to enforce the law, which is one of the harshest in the country.  The Illinois state government filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which fortunately refused to hear the case, leaving the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in place —  meaning that Illinois residents cannot be prosecuted for a felony under the Illinois Eavesdropping Act for recording police. The Seventh Circuit’s law would be considered “precedential” authority for similar laws, whether in Illinois, Indiana, or Wisconsin.

The case will now be now headed back to Illinois federal court (Northern District), where the ACLU will probably ask the temporary injunction barring the Illinois state government from enforcing the law to become permanent. If that is granted by the Court, that will effectively be the end of the Illinois Eavesdropping Act.  Lawmakers will have the option, however, to try to enact different laws.

Is it Legal or Illegal to Record Others?

Although the ACLU v. Alvarez case brings some clarity to the rights of citizens under the jurisdiction of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin), the issue of whether it is legal or illegal to record others is often tough to answer because it depends on the nature of the circumstances.

Federal law allows telephone and in-person recordings, as long as one person who is there and is party to the discussion consents.  This means that you can record a conversation you are a party to, even if the other person is not aware that the conversation is being recorded.   38 states and the District of Columbia  allow individuals to record phone calls and conversations to which they are a party.  12 states, on the other hand, require everyone involved in the discussion to give their permission before it is permissible for it to be recorded. These states consist of California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii (if the recording is done by a hidden device), Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Recording a discussion or conversation, however, is different from wiretapping, which is done in secret without any of the parties’ knowledge, and which can be illegal under state and federal laws.

Recording Police

In addition to the above, there are special rules for recording the police, depending on where you live.  It has been ruled as constitutional under the First Amendment to record (film or voice) the police performing public duties in public places in the 1st Circuit (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island), 7th Circuit (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), 9th Circuit (Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, and Washington), and 11th Circuit (Alabama, Florida and Georgia).

Changing Legal Landscape.

As seen from the most recent activity on this issue, this area of state law is clearly in a state of change. There is currently a legal battle brewing in Massachusetts about whether the recording of police (constitutional in Massachusetts) has to be done “openly” or whether it is acceptable for the recording to be done “secretly.” Elsewhere, a New Hampshire journalist is currently facing 21 years for filming a fight between a cop and student in school, that resulted in a police brutality case.  The federal government and civil rights groups, however, have both encouraged citizens to exert their rights. The U.S. Department of Justice has taken the position that it is clearly within the First Amendment rights of individuals to record local and state police. The ACLU of New York even offers free app that gives citizens a guide to recording police, if needed, to help citizens document ongoing problems with NYPD.

For now, the reality is that recording police is a lot like asking officers for their names and badge numbers: while it is legal, it will annoy or irritate the police officers, and rarely result in any breaks being given to the person asking.  With greater protections afforded to citizens’ civil rights, however, the legal landscape will change, and hopefully lessen the frequency of excessive force and other incidents of police brutality.

LegalZoom.com Sues Competitor Rocket Lawyer for Offering “Free” Legal Services

Well, this is an interesting one. Do-it-yourself legal forms website LegalZoom.com (founded in part by former OJ Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro) has sued a rival, Rocket Lawyer, which seems to provide similar services, but for free.  LegalZoom charges ordinary individuals various fees for giving them access to legal forms to help them form businesses, prepare Wills, or prepare other divorce, adoption, or similar legal paperwork.  

According to the LegalZoom lawsuit, Rocket Lawyer is liable for “false and misleading advertising, trademark infringement and unfair competition.”  The LegalZoom lawsuit was filed in California federal court in Los Angeles.

The lawsuit came after numerous unsuccessful attempts by LegalZoom over the past year to convince RocketLawyer to cease the “false advertising.”  Apparently, LegalZoom sent RocketLawyer a copy of Federal Trade Commission guidelines  addressing when the word “free” can be used in advertising.   According to LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer uses the phrases “free incorporation,” “free legal review,” and “free help from local attorneys” but allegedly requires filing fees or buying a paid membership plan.

We took a look at the RocketLawyer website after hearing about the LegalZoom lawsuit. It is unclear what “false advertising” LegalZoom is referring to, because on the front page of the Rocket Lawyer website is a link, as clear as day, that takes the user to ”Plans and Pricing.” According to the price list, although there are  “free” trial features of Rocket Lawyer services, the membership plans and prices are clearly disclosed.  Like with many online services, it appears that a trial run of Rocket Lawyer services is free, and then the user is charged once a certain period of time expires.  Unless LegalZoom has some written documentation or proof that Rocket Lawyer has actually made or been making confusing, misleading, deceptive or false advertisements, LegalZoom may not succeed in the lawsuit asserting allegations alone.

Further, it is also especially interesting that when a Google search of Rocket Lawyer is done, Legal Zoom’s ads come up. Registering Google keywords that use a competitor’s trade name, mark, or business name, on the other hand, does use a portion of the intellectual property and brand of the competitor.

Maybe there is more to the LegalZoom lawsuit than meets the eye. At first blush though, it appears that LegalZoom has just sued a competitor to protect its stake in the DIY-legal forms  market.  Finally, it is worth mentioning that although both sites offer “cheap” and “affordable” legal services to consumers, there is no ”on-demand” or one size-fits-all substitute for discussing a legal problem with a live lawyer.

Delta Sued by State of California for Violating Consumer Privacy Rights

Airline giant Delta has been sued by the state of California for violating consumer privacy rights, specifically, for collecting a wealth of private consumer information through its mobile app, “Fly Delta,” without providing consumers with any kind of clear privacy policy about how that information will be used.

The California lawsuit was brought by California attorney general Kamala Harris, charging Delta of violating the California Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was passed in February of 2012. COPPA requires mobile app providers to provide clear privacy policies if they collect personal information for users, or face lawsuits initiated by the state attorney general. The Delta lawsuit is the first of its kind enforcing COPPA, and California is the only state with the app-privacy law.

According to the lawsuit, which was brought in San Francisco superior court, Delta’s mobile app “Fly Delta” does not have any clear privacy policy, even though it collects a bevy of information about consumer, including their reservations, cancelled or missed flights, baggage fees, frequent flyer account, and personally-identifiable information such as the consumer’s full name, telephone number, email address, photos, and geolocation.

“Losing your personal privacy should not be the cost of using mobile apps, but all too often it is,” said Attorney General Harris. “California law is clear that mobile apps collecting personal information need privacy policies, and that the users of those apps deserve to know what is being done with their personal information.”

The California Attorney General is seeking up to $2,500 for each violation from Delta, and requesting that Delta be barred from using its app any further without establishing a clear privacy policy.

Big U.S. Food Companies Spend $32.5 Million to Oppose Disclosure of GMOs – Recently Revealed to Cause Tumors, Organ Failure, and Premature Death

In the American food landscape post pink-slime, any momentary relief consumers may have felt about food safety following the public outcry over ammonia-soaked beef was short-lived, as consumers now have new reasons to worry.  Ground-breaking research by a French scientist Gilles-Eric Serlini and the Caen University has revealed that long-term diet of GMOs, specifically those produced by agricultural conglomerate Monsanto, causes tumors, organ damage, and premature death in lab animals fed a steady GMO diet.

The research was the first of its kind, consisting of a long-term “feeding trial” whereby Monsanto’s famous Round-Up resistant “NK603” corn was fed to rats over a period of two years. The study, published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, found that 50% of male rats and 70% of female rats fed Monsanto’s corn died prematurely, suffered from organ damage, and grew massive tumors. Prior to the French study, the previous studies funded by the agricultural industry found that GM crops were safe for human consumption.

Although GMOs are “deeply unpopular” in Europe and banned in several countries, they sadly “dominate major crops” in the U.S., with no regulation whatsoever.  The French Environment and Farm Ministries, in light of the results of the French study, has said it will be asking European authorities to take “all necessary measure to protect human and animal health,” including emergency suspension of all imports of Monsanto corn in the European Union. Monsanto spokeman Thomas Helscher, on the other hand, responded that Monsanto’s scientific studies “continuously confirmed” the safety of Monsanto corn.  At least one major news source, Huffington Post, discredits Monsanto’s response, asserting that Monsanto cites “crude statistical data” involving “tests” that lasted only 90 days – too little time to reveal any chronic health problems.

The problem is that Monsanto has a virtual grip over the U.S. agriculture seed industry, controlling over 90% of the production of not only corn seeds, but soybeans, cotton, and other crop seeds. Monsanto, the manufacturer of Round-Up pesticide, has genetically modified its crop seeds to include a genetic trait that resists Round-Up – which is apparently the cause of the premature death, tumors, and organ damage identified by the French study. According to data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself, the overwhelming majority (over 90%) of U.S. soybean, corn, and cotton seeds today carry Monsanto’s genetic mutations, nearly double the figures that existed in 2000.

Currently, there are no regulations requiring Monsanto or other agricultural manufacturers to disclose genetically-engineered foods.  Even “organic” and “natural” food retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Stonyfield Farm have lost in the war with Monsanto over the labeling of food and whether Monsanto needs to disclose to consumers whether foods are sprayed with carcinogenic pesticides.  Abroad, university researchers criticizing Monsanto’s pesticides (such as Round-Up, which is used on the NK603 corn), were physically attacked and left with traumatic spine and head injuries after attempting to notify local citizens that Round-Up caused embryo deformities and birth defects in animals, similar to the kinds of birth defects and child cancer growth that had been experienced by nearby populations in recent years.

It is hard to believe the extent of the fortune that Monsanto has made manufacturing products that are toxic, hazardous, or carcinogenic. Monsanto’s first product was saccharin, eventually sold to Coca-Cola and at one point linked to bladder cancer in rats.  Monsanto manufactured highly-poisonous DDT for nearly thirty years before it was banned in 1972 due to the high level of toxicity.  In the 1960s and 1970s, Monsanto was one of the largest producers of ultra-deadly Agent Orange, which devastated the Vietnamese countryside – killing, maiming, or seriously disabling up to 1 million Vietnamese  and 2.6 million U.S. military. Monsanto was the single largest producer of PCBs, banned in 1979 due to causing cancer in animals and humans. Monsanto’s PCB plant in Sauget, Illinois is commonly regarded as one of the most polluted communities in the U.S.  In fact, at another PCB plant in Anniston, Alabama, Monsanto dumped approximately 45 tons of hazardous waste into local waterways, resulting in tremendous death and destruction to the fish population and nearby wildlife.  A recent Vanity Fair article on Monsanto is as informative as it is chilling in telling the story of Monsanto’s growth from a chemical company to agriculture conglomerate controlling 90% of the nation’s food supply.

Monsanto not only has a long history of making deadly products, it has made a strong investment in concealing its activities: Monsanto has contributed over $7 million to oppose the passage of California’s Proposition 37, which, if approved by voters in the November, 2012 election, would require companies to disclose to consumers whether genetically-modified organisms are used in food products.   Monsanto and similar companies have raised a total of over $25 million in total to defeat Proposition 37.

It is hard to believe that so little is being done to stop big agricultural companies like Monsanto from hiding or concealing from consumers how dangerous their products are reported to be, especially when those products concern the nation’s food supply. Even blue-chip companies  like Pepsi, Nestle, and Coca-Cola, to name a few, have joined Monsanto in opposing Prop. 37 mandate that consumer foods made with GMOs be disclosed with sufficient labelling.

What can be done? Health-conscious consumers must make their voices heard by demanding that GMO foods and food-products be labelled clearly so as to provide all necessary disclosures. In California, voters will get the opportunity to do so in November through ballot measure, via Proposition 37. For citizens in other states, including those in which no power exists to provide citizens with ballot initiatives, consumers can still take steps to limit their exposure to GMO foods.  Some simple steps that consumers can take are as follows:

  • Buying Organic. Certified organic food manufacturers are generally not allowed to use GM seeds, though there are no guarantees.
  • Buying Certified.  Some manufacturers stamp their foods with “Non-GMO” seals verifying that the food-products were not manufactured using GMOs.
  • Getting Involved. A number of online resources are petitioning the FDA and other U.S. agencies for change, including requiring mandatory disclosure of GMO products and calling for better regulations. Two notable ones are justlabelit.org and nongmoshoppingguide.com.  Change.org also lists a number of GMO-related petitions that consumers can participate in to effectuate change.
  • Attention to Advertising. It is illegal in most states for manufacturers to use advertising that is false, deceptive, or misleading to reasonable consumers. Consumers should pay attention to how foods are labelled and advertised. Product manufacturers that have mislabeled or mispackaged products or are employing false advertising could face legal liability.

All Chevy Cruzes Recalled Due to Engine Fire Risk

Yikes. Every single Chevrolet Cruze made from the first production through May 31, 2012  is being recalled by General Motors Co., due to reports of engine fires and explosion risk.  Apparently, liquids are getting trapped in the engine compartment, where a fire can start and spread.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in March opened a preliminary investigation into the Cruze after there were two reports of engine fires that destroyed the vehicles.

GM is sending letters to customers to notify them of the recall and  remind them to make sure, after an oil change, that proper cleanup of excess fluids is conducted.  Inspection for the possible missing welds that causes the fluid leaks will take a minutes, says GM, and the repair will take about three hours.  Modifying the engine shield will take about 30 minutes in a Chevrolet dealership service department and will be free.

So if you have a Cruze, do not delay – take it to the Chevy dealership and have them check it out to make sure it is safe to continue driving.