Getting on the Right Side of the Law with Video Surveillance Cameras

Video surveillance cameras are increasingly becoming prevalent in residential and commercial areas across the United States. Home, business and property owners are using these devices for a wide range of purposes such as complementing an existing security system, monitoring employee (e.g., nanny) and customer behavior, and preventing security breaches (e.g., losses, violations), among others.

But the prevalence of video surveillance cameras raises many questions that must be answered before actual installation. Keep in mind that the Fourth Amendment comes into the picture in these cases so be careful about getting on the right side of the law when using these cameras on your premises.

Covert Surveillance Explained

When the cameras cannot be identified and cannot be seen, then it is considered as covert surveillance. It is on the rise among homeowners usually in monitoring the activities of their nannies and kids as well as in gathering evidence in case of break-ins, among other uses.

In the United States, security cameras are largely legal although it must be emphasized that these devices should not intrude upon any individual’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy. This is where things can become tricky in a heartbeat so it will work in your favor to seek legal advice before installing security cameras around your property.

Placement of Security Cameras

Most of the tricky issues stemming from the use of video surveillance cameras come from their placement. For example, in a court of law, a jury is more likely to pass an innocent or guilty verdict with more reason and less doubt when video surveillance footage is shown in a case. A picture, after all, is worth a thousand words.

Studies have shown that the calculated placement of covert surveillance cameras can aid in the detection and prosecution of various criminal activities. These include theft, vandalism and harrassment (i.e., stalking) as well as child abuse, elder neglect, and domestic violence. As such, places like retail stores, prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, construction sites, casinos and even police stations as well as homes are common venues.

These public and private places are good venues but, again, the placement of the security cameras matter in getting on the right side of the law. While most camera surveillance systems are legal in the United States, these are illegal in places where people have a rightful expectation of privacy.

Examples of these places include bathroom stalls, dressing rooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms. Of course, placing cameras insider someone else’s property for the purpose of spying on them is illegal – unless, you are a law enforcement officer with a legal right to do so obviously.

But it is not just the images that can become a legal trap. Taking audio recordings along with the video images is considered illegal when:

    • The recording device is left unattended; and

    • The conversations being recorded are considered as private talks (i.e., you are not part of these conversations)

    • The recording was conducted without the express consent of the person being monitored when he/she as reasonable expectations of privacy.

Indeed, the use of video surveillance with accompanying audio recordings has many legal traps in it. You should first consult with your lawyer or with a security expert to ensure that your plan will not backfire.

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