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Recording on Cell Phone Video Is Ok, Split Decision on Audio-Updated Blog

Oct. 15, 2018

Maryland is a two-party consent state for purposes of recording another person's oral communications. That is, you are not permitted to record someone’s oral communications in Maryland without the other party’s consent. However, there are important exceptions to the two-party consent rule.

The first and most clear exception is that you can video record without violating Maryland’s consent laws. As the Court of Special Appeals recently stated, “a video recording without audio recording or without oral communication is not prohibited under the wiretap statute.” Holmes v. State, 236 Md. App. 636, 654, 182 A. 3rd 341 (2018). (There is a separate statute prohibiting surreptitiously recording in someone’s house. Md. Crim. Law Section 3-903 - Camera surveillance.) If you want to be on the safe side and you want to document an event turn on the video but not audio.

The question of whether you can record audio is less clear. At a recent divorce trial, I successfully argued that the cell phone videos my client took of his wife yelling and throwing knives at him were admissible. The other side’s divorce attorney argued that because his client did not consent to the recording my client violated the Maryland Wiretap Act, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-401 et seq. (2006), that the recordings were inadmissible and that my client should be criminally prosecuted. He said two other judges had accepted his argument and excluded cell phone recordings from being used as evidence—but the other lawyers did not know about the case I found that contradicted that position.

The secret to success in my client’s case was Martin v. State, 218 Md.App. 1, 96 A. 3d.765 (2014), cert. denied 440 Md. 463(2014), cert denied 135 S. Ct. 2068 (2015) in which the Court of Special Appeals held that cell phone recordings are not covered under the state wiretap statute. Recording someone speaking is generally an “interception” for wiretap act purposes. However, the Maryland Wiretap statute only prohibits interceptions if they occur through the use of any “electronic, mechanical, or another device.” CJP §§ 10-401(10) and 10-402(a). According to that case, the Act specifically excludes “telephone” from the definition of an “electronic, mechanical or another device.” Therefore, by using his cell phone to record the incidents, my client was within his rights, the evidence was admitted and he got the divorce he wanted, on the terms he wanted without having to pay any alimony, divide his pension, or pay her attorney’s fees.

However, the Holmes case has muddied the water. In Holmes, the mother secretly recorded a conversation she had with her daughter regarding alleged abuse of the daughter by the mother’s boyfriend. The court emphasized the secret nature of the recording several times in its opinion and never mentioned the Martin case. The Court excluded the cell phone recording on the basis that the cell phone recording violated Maryland’s wiretap statute.

Practice pointer: It is difficult to reconcile the two cases, from the same court (Court of Special Appeals) but with different judges. Clearly under both opinions, one can videotape using the cell phone. If audio is necessary, the cell phone should be visible so that the other side cannot claim it is a secret recording. (The Court acknowledged that under the full logic of its opinion parents could not record audio of their child’s birthday parties, which may be why they emphasized several times the secret nature of the Holmes’ recording.) Of course, if you can get the other side to consent—make sure it’s on tape, even in “the heat of the moment” --then the audio portion of the cell phone recording is also clearly acceptable.

This blog is the opinion of the author and does not constitute legal advice. It should not be relied upon for any purpose; it is presented solely as a discussion point with an attorney of your choosing. It does not in any way create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.