August 1, 2012

Summary of statute(s): An individual who is a party to either an in-person conversation or electronic communication, or who has the consent of one of the parties to the communication, can lawfully record it, unless the person is doing so for the purpose of committing a criminal or tortious act. A person also can lawfully record electronic communications that are readily accessible to the general public. Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 16.02 (Vernon 2011).

In-person conversations: The consent of at least one party to a conversation is required to record an “oral communication,” which is defined as “any oral communication uttered by a person exhibiting an expectation that the communication is not subject to interception under circumstances justifying that expectation.” Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 18.20. Thus, a journalist does not need consent to record conversations in public where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Electronic communications: The consent of at least one party to any telephone communication is required to record it. And because the provision of the statute dealing with wireless communications applies to “a transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature,” consent likewise is required to disclose the contents of text messages sent between wireless devices. Id.

Hidden cameras: It is a felony to photograph or record a person without the person’s consent in a public place “with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person,” or in a bathroom or private dressing room “with the intent to invade the privacy of the person, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person,” and to disclose any images obtained by these means. Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 21.15. The law, however, does not criminalize the use of recording devices for other purposes in areas to which the public has access or there is no reasonable expectation of privacy (i.e., filming conversations on public streets or a hotel lobby). The state’s highest court for criminal cases recently held that the statutory prohibition on photographing or videotaping a person in public without that person’s consent with the intent to arouse or gratify a sexual desire did not implicate, much less violate, a defendant’s free-speech rights because the statute was not a regulation of speech or the contents of a visual image but rather a regulation of the photographer’s or videographer’s intent in creating the image. Ex parte Nyabwa, 366 S.W.3d 710 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012).

Criminal penalties: Illegally recording an in-person conversation or electronic communication is a felony offense. Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 16.02.

Civil suits: Anyone whose wire, oral or electronic communication has been recorded or disclosed in violation of the law can bring a civil suit to recover $10,000 for each occurrence, actual damages in excess of $10,000, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and court costs. Under the statute, an aggrieved person also is entitled to an injunction prohibiting further unlawful interception or disclosure. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 123.004.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) held in 2000 that a television station and reporter who obtained illegally recorded tapes of telephone conversations, but who had not participated in the illegal recording, could nonetheless be held civilly liable under the federal and Texas wiretap statutes. Peavy v. WFAA-TV, Inc., 221 F.3d 158 (5th Cir. 2000). The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, along with two other cases raising similar issues. The Supreme Court refused to hear the Texas case but decided in one of the other cases, Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), that media defendants could not be held liable for publishing information of public concern that was obtained unlawfully by a source where the media were blameless in the illegal interception. Following the Bartnicki decision, the parties in the Peavy case settled out of court.

Disclosing recordings: Disclosing the contents of a wire, oral or electronic communication obtained through illegal recording is a felony. Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 16.02.