Rules on the Legal Use of Video Surveillance

by John Machay

It’s difficult to dispute the effectiveness of video surveillance in thwarting crime at a place of business or private residence. Visible video cameras are a great deterrent in the battle against shoplifting, robbery and burglary, and covert cameras are effective tools in helping to identify and prosecute those responsible for ripping you off. But before you start installing camera mounts and running video cables through your ceilings, it’s a good idea to brush up on surveillance laws. Although only 16 states have passed statutes that specifically address the issue, it’s important to follow some legal guidelines when setting up your surveillance system – regardless of which state you're in.

State Surveillance Laws

Since there are no federal laws that specifically address video surveillance, it’s up to each state to figure out how to handle the situation. To date, 16 have enacted laws restricting video surveillance. In Hawaii, video surveillance is legal only with the consent of the person being watched. In Alabama, Minnesota and Florida, it’s okay to watch whomever you want as long as the person isn’t in a private place -- which by law, is a place where one could reasonably expect privacy. Arkansas, on the other hand, allows private place surveillance if the subject gives consent, while Georgia permits surveillance in both public and private places – but the cameras can’t be hidden in either. Utah has a similar law, but the hidden camera restriction applies only to private places. Delaware, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire and South Dakota require consent for any type of hidden camera surveillance, while Utah, Michigan and Tennessee call for consent only for hidden cameras in private places. And finally, California’s law states it’s illegal to make a video recording of “confidential communications” without consent.

Not Off the Hook

Your state being absent from the aforementioned list doesn’t necessarily mean you’re free to conduct any kind of surveillance you want. In many cases, the absence of a law simply means there’s no set rule for a judge to follow – so the decision could go either way. For example, in a state with no surveillance law, you likely won’t be found guilty of criminal conduct if an employee or patron sues because she believes her rights were violated, but there is a chance you could lose the lawsuit. For that matter, your state could easily put into effect a video surveillance law at any time.

Play It Safe

Unless you feel it’s absolutely necessary to use covert surveillance, mount your cameras in locations that are visible to the public. By doing so, you’ll not only protect yourself from any legal ramifications that might arise from using hidden cameras, but you may even be better protected against crime. The belief that the mere presence of video cameras dramatically cuts down on theft is so popular that dummy cameras have become extremely popular with large retailers. While these devices don’t actually function, they serve as effective theft deterrents because they lead customers and employees to believe they’re being watched. Also, if your state allows surveillance in private places (e.g., bathrooms and dressing rooms), make sure the cameras are accompanied by clearly visible signs that notify patrons they’re being monitored for theft control purposes -- and make sure no one uses the security system for anything but that to avoid having a legal mess on your hands.

Silent Movies

Federal law holds that secretly recording a conversation is legal only if one of the parties being recorded knows about it. Although 37 states abide by the federal standard, the remaining 13 (California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington) have gone one step further, passing laws that require both parties’ consent. While none of these statutes specifically address video surveillance, one could feasibly argue that a video recording with sound could be governed by these laws.

About the Author

John Machay began writing professionally in 1984. Since then, his work has surfaced in the "West Valley View," "The Sean Hannity Show," "Scam Dunk" and in his own book, "Knuckleheads In the News." His efforts have earned him the Ottoway News Award and Billboard magazine honors for five straight years. Machay studied creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago.

Photo Credits

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