Interstate phone calls

August 1, 2012

In light of the differing state laws governing electronic recording of conversations between private parties, journalists are advised to err on the side of caution when recording or disclosing an interstate telephone call. The safest strategy is to assume that the stricter state law will apply.

For example, a reporter located in the District of Columbia who records a telephone conversation without the consent of a party located in Maryland would not violate District of Columbia law, but could be liable under Maryland law. A court located in the District of Columbia may apply Maryland law, depending on its “conflict of laws” rules. Therefore, an aggrieved party may choose to file suit in either jurisdiction, depending on which law is more favorable to the party’s claim.

In one case, a New York trial court was asked to apply the Pennsylvania wiretap law — which requires consent of all parties — to a call placed by a prostitute in Pennsylvania to a man in New York. Unlike the Pennsylvania wiretap statute, the New York and federal statutes require the consent of only one party. The call was recorded with the woman’s consent by reporters for The Globe, a national tabloid newspaper. The court ruled that the law of the state where the injury occurred, New York, should apply. (Krauss v. Globe International)

The Supreme Court of California in Kearney v. Salomon Smith Barney applied California wiretap law to a company located in Georgia that routinely recorded business phone calls with its clients in California. California law requires all party consent to record any telephone calls, while Georgia law requires only one party consent. The state’s high court, applying choice of law principles, reasoned that the failure to apply California law would “impair California’s interest in protecting the degree of privacy afforded to California residents by California law more severely than the application of California law would impair any interests of the State of Georgia.”

In another case involving Pennsylvania law, four employees of The Times Leader, a newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, were arrested after they printed a transcript of a telephone conversation between a columnist in Pennsylvania and a murder suspect living in Virginia that was recorded without the suspect’s permission. The Virginia and federal statutes allow one party to record a conversation, while Pennsylvania, as discussed above, requires the consent of all parties. The man asked prosecutors to charge the journalists under the Pennsylvania law. The court eventually dismissed the charges against the newspaper staff — but on the unrelated ground that the suspect had no expectation of privacy during his telephone interview with the columnist. (Pennsylvania v. Duncan)

Federal law may apply when the conversation is between parties who are in different states, although it is unsettled whether a court will hold in a given case that federal law “pre-empts” state law. In Duncan, the newspaper argued that the federal law should pre-empt the state statutes, because the telephone call crossed state lines, placing it under federal jurisdiction. However, in that case, the court did not address the pre-emption issue. Moreover, as noted above, either state may choose to enforce its own laws.