District of Columbia

August 1, 2012

Summary of statute(s): In the District of Columbia, an individual may record or disclose the contents of a wire or oral communication if he or she is a party to the communication, or has received prior consent from one of the parties. The District’s voyeurism law prohibits secretly taking images of people in private settings and distributing them without consent. The District also contains several obscure city rules regulating the activities of commercial street photographers

In-person conversations: The consent of at least one participant to a conversation is required before any recording can take place under the District’s wiretapping law. D.C. Code § 23-542. This means a reporter’s tape-recorded conversation with a source would be permissible, since that reporter is a party to the conversation. The District’s municipal regulations also contain a set of obscure rules requiring street photographers selling their wares to tourists on public spaces to become licensed. See D.C. Mun. Regs. § 24-521, -22. The District imposes several rules governing the conduct of such photographers, including prohibiting them from impeding traffic and limiting the time spent in any one place to five minutes. D.C. Mun. Regs. § 24-523.3. Concerns over these rules and their potential for abuse prompted promises from District officials to clarify that the rule would apply only to street vendors who take photos of people to sell to them. See Mike DeBonis, D.C. Will Revisit Street Photography Regulations, Wash. Post, Nov. 28, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/mike-debonis/post/dc-will-revisit-st....

Electronic communications: Similarly, intercepting any wire or landline conversation is illegal unless the person recording is a party to the conversation or at least one of the parties has given consent. D.C. Code § 23-542.

Hidden cameras: The District’s voyeurism law prohibits stationing oneself in a “hidden observation post” or installing any electronic device to secretly record another person using a restroom, undressing or engaging in sexual activity. D.C. Code § 23-3531.

Criminal penalties: Recording or distributing the contents of any recordings of communications made without proper consent can be punished criminally by a fine of no more than $10,000 or imprisonment for no more than five years, or both. D.C. Code § 23-542. Violating the District’s voyeurism law is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and fines of up to $1,000. D.C. Code § 23-3531(f). Distribution of images in violation of the District’s voyeurism law is a felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment and fines not more than $5,000. D.C. Code § 23-3531(f)(2).

Civil suits: Anyone who illegally records or discloses the contents of a communication is also subject to civil liability for the greater of actual damages, damages in the amount of $100 per day for each day of violation, or $1,000, along with punitive damages, attorney fees and litigation costs. D.C. Code § 23-554.

Disclosing recordings: The District prohibits disclosure of the contents of an illegally recorded communication. However, such disclosure cannot be punished criminally if the contents of the communication have “become common knowledge or public information.” D.C. Code § 23-542.