Paul Boron is 13 years old. He’s facing a felony eavesdropping charge that could change the course of the rest of his life.
Boron’s story stands as another chapter of controversy surrounding an eavesdropping law ripe for abuse, and state lawmakers should take action to fix it.
On Feb. 16, 2018, Boron was called to the principal’s office at Manteno Middle School after failing to attend a number of detentions. Before meeting Principal David Conrad and Assistant Principal Nathan Short, he began recording audio on his cellphone.
Boron said he argued with Conrad and Short for approximately 10 minutes in the reception area of the school secretary’s office, with the door open to the hallway. When Boron told Conrad and Short he was recording, Conrad told Boron he was committing a felony and promptly ended the conversation, Boron says.
Two months later, in April, Boron was charged with one count of eavesdropping – a class 4 felony in Illinois.
“If I do go to court and get wrongfully convicted, my whole life is ruined,” said Boron, who lives with his mother and four siblings in Manteno, Illinois, an hour southwest of Chicago. “I think they’re going too far.”
Boron’s mother, Leah McNally, was shocked when she learned about the charge against her son.
“It blew my mind that they would take it that far … I want to see him be able to be happy and live up to his full potential in life, especially with the disability he has,” she said. Her son is legally blind in his right eye.
Illinois’ eavesdropping law is clear as mud on the matter of recording authority figures, which has led to a number of contentious legal battles and attempts at reform in recent years. Boron is not alone.
Christopher Drew, an artist arrested for selling artwork without a permit on a Chicago sidewalk in 2009, was charged with a felony for recording the incident.
In 2010, Bridgeport resident Michael Allison was charged with a felony for recording his own court hearing after the court did not provide a court reporter.
The same year, Chicagoan Tiawanda Moore was charged with a felony for recording conversations with Chicago Police Department investigators regarding her sexual misconduct complaint against an officer.
These cases arose because the law established Illinois as an “all-party consent” state, where, essentially, recording any conversation unless all parties consented was a felony offense. Federal law and a majority of states allow for one-party consent.
In March 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down Illinois’ eavesdropping law, holding that it “criminalize[d] a wide range of innocent conduct” and violated residents’ First Amendment rights.
But during a lame-duck legislative session in December 2014, the Illinois General Assembly passed and Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new eavesdropping law. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, lawmakers included changes aimed at allowing residents to record interactions with police, for example, but kept in tact the “all-party consent” provisions and introduced a difficult-to-gauge standard for when a person must get consent for recording.
Specifically, the new law made it a felony to surreptitiously record any “private conversation,” defined as “oral communication between [two] or more persons” where at least one person has a “reasonable expectation” of privacy.
But when does someone have a “reasonable” expectation of privacy? And is it fair to expect Illinoisans to know where to draw that line in their everyday lives?
If that phrase seems purposefully vague, that’s because it is. One of the bill’s sponsors, former state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, helpfully defined “reasonable expectation” as “We’ll know it when we see it.”
That’s music to the ears of overzealous prosecutors.
Boron isn’t quite sure what he wants to be when he grows up. He’s interested in serving in the military, but his vision impairment limits his opportunities there. And if he’s exposed to the juvenile justice system, his opportunities could narrow further.
“It would be heart-wrenching,” McNally said of the possibility that her son is found guilty.
“He didn’t do anything wrong, and for him to be snatched from his family, the emotional impact that’s going to have … it’s just going to follow him throughout his years.”
Given the tenacity with which Illinois prosecutors have enforced the state’s eavesdropping law, reform from the Statehouse may be Boron’s best hope.
AUSTIN BERG is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.