2021 Legislature: Bill would allow victims to secretly record abusers

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena

During a Tuesday House Judiciary meeting Tuesday, lawmakers examined a bill that would allow crime victims to surreptitiously record their abusers to gather evidence against them.

The measure would revise existing privacy laws by allowing someone to record a conversation without the other party’s consent if they think the other party “is committing, is about to commit, or has committed a criminal offense or any type of physical or mental abuse.” It would apply if the person recording the conversation or a member of their household is the target of that offense or abuse.

House Bill 114 sponsor Mary Ann Dunwell, D- Helena, said the bill could help “break the cycle of violence” by expanding the tools available to prosecutors working on domestic violence cases.

Proponents who testified before the House Judiciary Committee in favor of the bill included domestic violence survivors, a former Montana Supreme Court justice, a law enforcement officer-turned-therapist, and victims rights advocates.

Missoula Police Department detective Nathan Griesse also testified in support of the bill. He said witness tampering is common in the domestic violence cases he investigates, and he thinks the proposed changes could help law enforcement officers hold offenders accountable for their actions.

Claudia Morley, who serves as a court appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children, said she thinks the measure could help children avoid the psychological trauma that often accompanies abuse.

“[If] the victim in my case had had access to this tool, I think intervention could have happened in real time, saving psychological trauma to the children,” Morley said.

Lawmakers and bill opponents expressed concern about potential unintended consequences.

Benjamin Halverson, a domestic violence prosecutor for the city of Billings, spoke in “reluctant and respectful” opposition to the bill. He expressed concern that it might be misused by abusers to take a victim’s statements and actions out of context. He proposed an amendment specifying that a criminal offense must occur before the law would apply.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, called the bill “way too broad in its interpretation.” He questioned whether it would allow for someone to be recorded even if no crime was imminent, and gave the example of someone using a shotgun microphone to record a neighbor.

In response, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson said he thought the language in the bill was narrowly tailored to its intended purpose: to protect victims of crime and enable perpetrators of abuse to be brought to justice.

“The technology exists to provide domestic abuse occurrences as evidence,” Rep. Dunwell said in her closing remarks. “I ask for a do pass on behalf of all of the survivors of domestic violence and the 200 domestic violence homicide victims who did not survive”— a reference to the number of people who have died in domestic violence-related acts of homicide in the state since 2000.

No executive action was taken on the bill Tuesday.

This story originally appeared online at Montana Free Press and is republished here by permission.