Eavesdropping is something we’ve all done at some point in our lives. Normally, it involves staying quiet and remaining shrouded in mystery while we listen to someone discuss either ourselves or someone we know. In most cases, eavesdropping is fairly harmless, however, there are some circumstances where your penchant for eavesdropping could result in you facing criminal charges.
The challenge with eavesdropping in California is that the state is a “two-party consent” state. That means that California lawmakers feel that when it comes to having confidential communications in a space where the people involved in the conversation have a reasonable expectation of privacy, eavesdropping is prohibited, particularly if the eavesdropper hopes to gain something from the information they learn while spying on the conversation.
The topic of eavesdropping in California is dealt with in California Penal Code 632 PC. It’s important to note that while this law does discuss eavesdropping, it does clarify that in legal cases, the eavesdropper had to have done more than simply overhear a private conversation. They must have made a concentrated effort to eavesdrop. Examples of this would be using a recording device or amplifier to catch all elements of the conversation.
The California law specifically states that, “a person who, intentionally and without the consent of all parties to a confidential communication, uses an electronic amplifying or recording device to eavesdrop upon or record the confidential communication, whether the communication is carried on among the parties in the presence of one another or by means of a telegraph, telephone, or other device, except a radio, shall be punished.”
Shouse law provided examples of what California lawmakers consider illegal eavesdropping. These samples include:
- Recording an employer’s conversations when they’re speaking to other employees.
- Recording the conversation of a hotel guest while you are in the hallway/another room/beneath their hotel window.
- Using a laptop in an intimate restaurant to record the conversation between two patrons.
Eavesdropping in California is one of the state’s wobbler offenses which means the circumstances surrounding the case determine if you’re charged with felony or misdemeanor eavesdropping. The two main things the prosecutor considers when trying to determine if they want to charge you with a misdemeanor or felony are the details of the case and your criminal history, particularly if your history shows that you have a habit of eavesdropping.
If you’re convicted of misdemeanor eavesdropping, the maximum sentence is a $2,500 fine and/or one year in a county jail.
In felony cases, the maximum sentence is a $2,500 fine and/or up to three years in a California state prison.
Once you have successfully completed your sentence, you can apply to have the eavesdropping conviction expunged from your record.