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Case in tiny town makes big waves

By Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Michael Allison is a lot of trouble for a small town.

The 42-year-old car buff from Bridgeport, about 250 miles south of Chicago, has repeatedly butted heads with the police chief, the state’s attorney and other elected officials. Lawsuits have been filed. The bad blood has been simmering for years.

But it was what Allison allegedly did with a digital recorder that has given him the most notoriety. And now, his case has become a cause celebre for civil libertarians opposed to Illinois’ strict eavesdropping law.

“He’s a man of principle, and he thinks he has a right to have a record of what happens in public, and a right to record city officials talking about their positions in matters involving him,” said his attorney, William Sunderman.

In January 2009, Allison was fighting a city ordinance violation for keeping an abandoned car on his mother’s property and was trying to get the proceedings on record.

Told that there would be no court reporter provided for the hearing, Allison taped it on a digital recorder he’d stuffed in his pocket. When Circuit Judge Kimbara Harrell found out, she had him arrested and charged with eavesdropping on a public official — which in Illinois is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Not only that, after Allison’s arrest it was discovered he had recorded other conversations about his legal situation with the police chief, county prosecutors and others. In all, he was charged with five counts of eavesdropping and faced a possible 75-year sentence.

In September, a county judge ruled that the state’s eavesdropping law is unconstitutional as written and threw out all the charges against Allison.

“A statute intended to prevent unwarranted intrusions into a private citizen’s privacy cannot be used as a shield for public officials who cannot assert a comparable right of privacy in their public duties,” Circuit Judge David Frankland wrote.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed notice that she will appeal the ruling directly to the state Supreme Court but wants to delay arguments until after a ruling comes down in another eavesdropping case before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

If that decision differs from a recent opinion from a federal court in Boston, the entire battle could land in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, court watchers say.

“All of this case law is kind of evolving right at the moment,” said a spokeswoman for Madigan’s office.

In the meantime, Allison remains in a state of limbo.

“His case is dismissed, but there are a number of cases on parallel tracks that are not on same schedule and could take some time to resolve,” Sunderman said. “He’s still under a cloud.”

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