'Wiretapping' charges may be the silliest ever recorded

This could happen to you, too … if you live in one of 12 states

Chi Quang Truong, 46, is being charged by police in Natick, Massachusetts with "unlawful wiretapping and possessing a device for wiretapping," according to this story in The MetroWest Daily News.

If you're thinking foreign spy or industrial espionage, think again.

Try irate customer who kicked up a fuss at a car dealer's service department.

And that "device for wiretapping?"

Try nothing more sophisticated than a handheld digital voice recorder; an Olympus, to be precise.

If you cannot imagine what could be going on here, chances are you've not had reason to brush up on the laws governing the tape recording of conversations. (Journalists know all about this stuff.)

Truong's travails began with a beef familiar to all of us: Unsatisfied with the timeliness with which his car was repaired, he demanded $300 compensation from the dealer. His demand was met with a series of counteroffers, which were rebuffed and followed by an escalating confrontation, which resulted in the dealer calling the cops.

From the story:

Police arrested a man they say caused a disturbance at a Honda dealership and who, it was later discovered, had been recording the exchange with a voice recorder in his pocket.

Police said Truong became irate and blocked the dealership's service bay with his car. Workers at Bernardi Honda asked Truong to leave and he refused, (Lt. Brian) Grassey said. During his arrest, Truong tried to resist police, Grassey said.

After officers placed Truong under arrest, Grassey said they discovered an Olympus digital voice recorder in his pocket. Truong didn't say why he was taping, Grassey said.

Truong has been charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, trespassing, unlawful wiretapping and possessing a device for wiretapping.

Although not specified in the story, I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the reason Truong was hit with the "wiretapping" charges -- I mean other than the fact he allegedly gave the police a hard time -- was that he failed to inform the employees at the dealership that he was tape-recording their conversation. Twelve states, including my beloved Massachusetts, require that all parties to a conversation be informed before anyone can hit the record button on whatever device they're packing or yacking on.

From The Reporters Committee for Freedom Web site:

Federal law allows recording of phone calls and other electronic communications with the consent of at least one party to the call. A majority of the states and territories have adopted wiretapping statutes based on the federal law, although most also have extended the law to cover in-person conversations. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia permit individuals to record conversations to which they are a party without informing the other parties that they are doing so. These laws are referred to as "one-party consent" statutes, and as long as you are a party to the conversation, it is legal for you to record it. (Nevada also has a one-party consent statute, but the state Supreme Court has interpreted it as an all-party rule.)

Twelve states require, under most circumstances, the consent of all parties to a conversation. Those jurisdictions are California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington. Be aware that you will sometimes hear these referred to inaccurately as "two-party consent" laws. If there are more than two people involved in the conversation, all must consent to the taping.

If you're interested in more detail, there's a state-by-state guide here (in handy-dandy checklist chart form here); a discussion of what constitutes "consent" here; and, words of warning should you want to distribute your illegally recorded gains here.

In my view it's the federal law and 38 "one-party consent" states that have this one called correctly, and the 12 others that have some explaining to do. The justification for criminalizing self-authorized self-recording has never been made clear to me; best I get from friends and colleagues is that being recorded without one's knowledge "is creepy."

Yes it is, or at least in can be in some cases.

But so is charging a guy with "wiretapping" just because he tossed a nutty at a car dealership.

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