Bull Bokinsky

Marion County Attorney Ed Bull and Pella Police Chief Bob Bokinsky

KNOXVILLE — Iowans whose surveillance systems catch crooks saying the wrong thing won’t get in trouble themselves after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill with deep roots in Marion County.

The new Iowa law was inspired by a Pella businessman who wanted to monitor drunk people causing damage to his property along a popular walkway. He installed surveillance equipment to catch them in the act. The businessman’s video system had audio capability and captured people’s voices on tape.

Pella Police Chief Robert Bokinsky realized that, under existing Iowa law, the recorded voices could result in a serious misdemeanor for the businessman, so he reached out to County Attorney Ed Bull. Bokinsky laid out the circumstances and asked for Bull’s opinion. Bull said he suspected there was a criminal violation, but no criminal intent.

Bokinsky said Bull was determined to pursue legislation to correct the situation in state law. Bull was concerned that most modern video cameras record audio. Although this doesn’t necessarily affect people’s everyday lives, it could cause problems, he said.

Hypothetically, someone could have a camera that records people breaking into their house, Bull said. He suggested the thieves might say, “Let’s get this and take it back to the storage unit.”

“Now that transmission was obtained illegally,” Bull said, “any future evidence we derive from that investigation could be suppressed as well as being fruit of the poisonous tree.”

Bull and Bokinsky wondered whether everyone who has a surveillance system or a trail camera that records sound is breaking the law.

Bull said their gut reaction was that people were breaking the law without even knowing it. He and Bokinsky said they felt an obligation to update the law to keep up with technology that has surpassed what legislators had in mind when they first designed it.

“Should we at least bring it to their attention?” Bull asked. “That is what we did.”

Bull and Bokinsky told state Rep. Greg Heartsill and state Sen. Amy Sinclair about a problem that most folks don’t recognize as a problem.

Bull said it was a logical suggestion to decriminalize behavior when people don’t even know they’re breaking the law. Legislators thought likewise, passing the bill 48-1 in the Senate and 60-38 in the House. Reynolds signed it into law April 10.

Heartsill said Bokinsky and Bull were instrumental in bringing this problem to his attention and helping him understand it.

“I am very pleased that we were able to update our code so that anyone with home security cameras wouldn’t be subject to wiretapping laws since technology has advanced and home security now catches audio,” Heartsill said.

Ethan Goetz is a general assignment reporter for the Knoxville Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155, ext. 19, or via email at reporter@pellachronicle.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ethan_Goetz.