Thursday, October 22, 2009

Can Twitter Lead to Jail Time?

Imagine it, the date, September 24, 2009. The place, Philadelphia during the G20 Summit. You're sitting in a hotel room, with a off-the-shelf, police-band radio scanner, and a computer. What you're doing is as police actions come over the radio, you're transcribing them to Twitter.

The before you know it, you're under arrest, and the F.B.I. is at your house, taking your books, computers, and rifling through your dirty underwear. After all, larceny in the name of protecting the government is the primary job of the F.B.I.

This is exactly what happened to Elliot Madison (aged 41). He was sitting in a hotel room, transcribing police messages to Twitter when the self-same police arrived and took him to jail. While there they charged him with the following crimes:Let's consider these things, and remember I'm not a lawyer. What I am is an intelligent, logical human, who expects things--especially laws--to be human readable without having a lawyer immediately on hand to explain every detail.

The Hindering Apprehension or Prosecution law is fairly straightforward. It details the fact that anyone actively helping people escape prosecution (hiding criminals, etc) is guilty of it. Specifically, this clause:
warns the other of impending discovery or apprehension, except that this paragraph does not apply to a warning given in connection with an effort to bring another into compliance with law; or
What's interesting in regards to this case, is that the Prosecution would have a hard time proving a) the intent of Mr. Madison in this regard and b) the people he was actively providing this information to was actively engaging in a crime. He was sending Twitter messages to people protesting the government--I find it highly odd that the Pennsylvania State Police automatically assume that people protesting governments are engaging in criminal behavior. After all, that has to be the assumption if Mr. Madison is providing t his information to warn them of impending discovery or apprehension in regards to criminal behavior.

The second law there, only comes into bearing if the first one is relevant--or again, if the Pennsylvania State Police believe that dissent with governing bodies is the same as criminal behavior. This law only has bearing if someone commits, causes or facilitates other criminal activity with the use of the "Communication Facility," which is defined by law as:
As used in this section, the term "communication facility" means a public or private instrumentality used or useful in the transmission of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part, including, but not limited to, telephone, wire, radio, electromagnetic, photoelectronic or photo-optical systems or the mail. (Dec. 21, 1998, P.L.1240, No.157, eff. 60 days)
Now, what interests me is the fact that by this definition--and the Pennsylvania State Police's assumptions of inherent criminal activity on the part of protesters--the dispatch officers and officers at the scene are facilitating the same "criminal" behavior as Mr. Madison by sending the same information he did over the radio (after all, he was just transcribing radio communications onto Twitter).

And that last law is probably the most inherently unstable of the charges brought against Mr. Madison. The "authoritahs" are using the following clause to bring the charge (as the rest of the clauses refer to weapons and/or body armor):
Anything used for criminal purposes and possessed by the actor under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for lawful uses it may have.
The problem with that is that Mr. Madison was using the tools he had at his disposal in inherently legal--and (what seems to this non-lawyer as) an appropriately lawful--manners. He was listening to a police-band radio scanner, and transmitting the information he heard on it over Twitter.

Let us not forget that the Police, as "public servants," their communication is part of the Public Domain. That chatter can legally be listened to by anyone (though transmitting on the relevant bands is legally a no-no and morally really murky).

No, the way this reads is the following concepts are in play:
  • (Yet another) Government Agency does not want people actively paying attention to what they are doing and/or saying about the people that they are supposedly serving
  • The (Pennsylvania State) police inherently feel that protesting the government and/or any form of governing body is an inherently criminal act
Both concepts scare the tar outta me.

It saddens me that the government is scared of the populace. Actually, that tells me that the government is not effectively doing its job of serving the true needs of the constituency which they are there to serve.

Worse, is the thought that this police force (and the FBI for searching Mr. Madison home for "criminal materials") believe that dissent to the government is bad.

Of course, it's not that unexpected. Time and again, the government--and by that I mean everything from the smallest of podunk towns sheriff's all the way to the Supreme Court--are less interested in serving the true nature of our country as defined by the Constitution as they are by gathering more and more power unto themselves.

No, I firmly believe that what Mr. Madison was doing was morally and legally right. He--as a taxpayer and citizen of this country--is morally obligated to keep tabs upon the criminal governmental agencies out to fleece serve him. Additionally, he is within his right to post that information he has gathered onto any bulletin board service he so desires.

In the end, it is as too often the case these days: the Police attempting to force their will upon the populace via duress.

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