Note: This page covers information specific to California. For general information concerning the use of recording devices see the Recording Phone Calls, Conversations, Meetings and Hearings section of this guide.
California Wiretapping Law
California's wiretapping law is a "two-party consent" law. California makes it a crime to record or eavesdrop on any confidential communication, including a private conversation or telephone call, without the consent of all parties to the conversation. See Cal. Penal Code § 632. The statute applies to "confidential communications" -- i.e., conversations in which one of the parties has an objectively reasonable expectation that no one is listening in or overhearing the conversation. See Flanagan v. Flanagan, 41 P.3d 575, 576-77, 578-82 (Cal. 2002). A California appellate court has ruled that this statute applies to the use of hidden video cameras to record conversations as well. See California v. Gibbons, 215 Cal. App. 3d 1204 (Cal Ct. App. 1989).
If you are recording someone without their knowledge in a public or semi-public place like a street or restaurant, the person whom you're recording may or may not have "an objectively reasonable expectation that no one is listening in or overhearing the conversation," and the reasonableness of the expectation would depend on the particular factual circumstances. Therefore, you cannot necessarily assume that you are in the clear simply because you are in a public place.
If you are operating in California, you should always get the consent of all parties before recording any conversation that common sense tells you might be "private" or "confidential." In addition to subjecting you to criminal prosecution, violating the California wiretapping law can expose you to a civil lawsuit for damages by an injured party. See Cal. Penal Code § 637.2.
Consult The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Can We Tape?: California for more information on California wiretapping law.
California Law on Recording Court Hearings and Public Meetings
In a California state courtroom, you may be able to use a recording device if specific requirements are met. Anyone may use an inconspicuous personal recording device for note-taking purposes with the advance permission of the judge. For photographing, recording (other than as above), or broadcasting a court proceeding, you must file official media coverage request forms. These forms must be filed with the court at least five days before the event to be covered. The court has broad discretion to grant or deny such requests based on a number of factors. See Rule 1.150 of the California Rules of Court for details.
Federal courts in California are part of the Ninth Circuit. In Ninth Circuit appellate proceedings, cameras and recording devices are permitted at the discretion of the presiding panel of judges. To get permission, you need to file an Application for Permission to Photograph, Record, or Broadcast from the Courtroom three days in advance, although the panel can waive the advance notice requirement. Recording devices and cameras generally are prohibited in federal district courts in California.
For information on your right of access to court proceedings, please consult the Access to Government Information section of the guide.
If you attend a public meeting (i.e., a meeting of a governmental body required to be open to the public by law) in California, you may make an audio or video recording unless the state or local body holding the meeting determines that the recording disrupts the proceedings by noise, illumination, or obstruction of view. Cal. Gov't Code § 11124.1(a); Cal Gov't Code §§ 54953.5(a),-.6.
For information on your right of access to public meetings, please consult the Access to Government Information section of the guide.