In State v. Smith, the WA Court of Appeals Division II held that an accidentally recorded argument between the defendant and his wife was improperly admitted at trial and violated the Washington Privacy Act.
John and Sheryl were a married couple. On June 2, 2013, they were in their residence drinking. They became intoxicated and began to argue. John began to beat and strangle Sheryl, who lost consciousness due to the strangling. Sometime during the attack, John used the residence’s landline telephone to try to locate his cell phone. Unable to do so, he was unaware that his actions activated his cell phone’s voice mail function, which started recording part of the dispute. In that recording, John is heard yelling insults at Sheryl. Sheryl responded to these statements by screaming unintelligibly or asking him to stop or leave her alone. At one point during the recording, Sheryl tells John to “Get away,” to which he responds, “No way. I will kill you.”
Shortly after the voice mail was recorded, John left the residence. Sheryl called 911 and reported that John had beaten her. A police officer with the Vancouver Police Department arrived at the residence, and Sheryl was transported to the hospital. John’s cell phone was retrieved and taken by the police. John was later arrested and charged with first degree attempted murder (domestic violence), second degree attempted murder (domestic violence), first degree assault (domestic violence), and second degree assault (domestic violence). Before trial, John moved to suppress the cell phone voice mail recording based on RCW 9.73.030, which applies to intercepting, recording and/or the divulging of private communications under the WA Privacy Act. The trial court held a CrR 3.6 hearing and denied his motion.
At John’s bench trial, the recorded voice mail, 911 phone calls, and photographs of Sheryl’s injuries were admitted into evidence. The trial court found John guilty of second degree attempted murder and second degree assault, both with domestic violence enhancements.
John appealed on three issues: (1) whether the recorded voice mail’s contents are a conversation; (2) if the contents are a conversation, whether it was private; and (3) if a private conversation, whether it was recorded or intercepted.
For the following reasons, the Court held that John recorded a private conversation in violation of RCW 9.73.030.
1. DID A CONVERSATION TAKE PLACE?
Amidst screaming from Sheryl, the following communications took place:
John: “You think you’re bleeding?. . . . You’re the most fucked up person. Give me back the phone.”
Sheryl: “Get away.”
John: “No way. I will kill you.”
Sheryl: “I know.”
John: “Did you want to kill me? Give me back my phone.”
Sheryl: “No. Leave me alone.”
The Court reasoned that the contents of the recorded voice mail constituted a conversation. Although Sheryl’s screams alone would not constitute a conversation, these screams were responsive to statements that John was making to Sheryl and were scattered throughout the entire dispute, which contained repeated verbal exchanges between the two individuals as outlined above. Within this context, Sheryl’s screams serve as an expression of sentiments responsive to John’s yelling and thus constitute part of a conversation.
2. WAS THE CONVERSATION PRIVATE?
The Court held that the conversation was private. Here, a domestic dispute occurred between two married persons in the privacy of their home. It reasoned that the location of the conversation, the relationship between the parties, and the absence of third parties all declare the privacy of the conversation. Therefore, reasoned the Court, John had a “subjective intention and reasonable expectation that the conversation with Sheryl would be private.”
3. IF THE CONVERSATION WAS PRIVATE, WAS IT RECORDED OR INTERCEPTED?
The Court held that the WA Privacy Act was violated when John accidentally recorded a private conversation without Sheryl’s consent. It reasoned that the WA Privacy Act requires the consent of all parties to a private conversation. Further, the case law has implied that no third party is required to record a conversation. In other words, a party to a private conversation can also be the person who impermissibly records the conversation. Thus, reasoned the Court, John’s recording of this conversation can violate the privacy act, even though he accidentally made himself a party to it.
Based on the above, the Court reversed and remanded the second degree attempted murder conviction, but affirmed the second degree assault conviction.
My opinion? Although my sympathies go out to the victim, the Court’s decision was correct. Privacy is a mysterious subject matter in our ever-changing world. Cell phones and other devices allow us to record anything, any time, anywhere. The fact is, most of us don’t know even know we’re even being recorded in our daily lives. So you can imagine a scenario where accidental recordings become the subject for intense litigation.
Many clients ask me if recorded conversations between themselves and alleged victims/witnesses are admissible at trial. Clearly, the answer is “No” under the WA Privacy Act unless the participants are (1) aware that their conversation is being recorded, and (2) expressly consent to the recording. Interesting stuff. This case was a good decision upholding our privacy rights in the face of today’s technological advancements.