The Surprising Legal Ramifications of Having a Dashcam in Your Car
Want to make sure your mechanic isn't messing with your car? Be careful, a dashcam could actually get you in trouble too.
We've all seen the hilarious footage of a customer car being taken on a joyride by a mechanic, with the whole ordeal recorded by the customer's dashboard camera. Hapless technicians and porters flog cars, often with the dash cam right in front of them preparing to make them YouTube stars.
Are there any potential legal ramifications to the car owner for any of this? Believe it or not, yes. Here is what you need to know about your dash cam, from a legal perspective.
Many states have eavesdropping statutes. And this means I have to insert the normal caveat here: This WILL vary wildly from state to state. But in general terms, eavesdropping statutes govern whether you can record a conversation without the consent of some or all of the participants to the conversation.
While most people get their dash cams so they record the view through their windshield, dash cams often record audio from inside the passenger compartment as well. In Michigan, courts have ruled that a person can record a conversation to which they are a party regardless of the other parties to the conversation knowing or giving consent in advance. So, if you have a dash cam in your own car and it is recording while you drive, you have no problem since you are a "party" to any conversation going on in your car.
The issue arises when you are not in your car. Like when you drop off your supercar for minor warranty work and leave it in the hands of professionals for the day. If your dash cam records a conversation between people in the car that you are not a part of, it would be considered "eavesdropping" in many states. Eavesdropping statutes often carry harsh penalties: In Michigan it is a felony, carrying possible prison time and a steep fine. As an attorney, I advise you to avoid eavesdropping.
There are a couple of points to be made here, however. The obvious one is that all of these statutes tend to address "conversation." As in, people talking. If the dash cam is only recording video but no audio, you would be fine. Does the camera have a mute function? If so, mute it when you will not be in the car.
If you didn't mute the recording and got some juicy footage–including audio–of your car being thrashed, you might still have some decent defenses. The obvious one is that the camera is in plain sight. Did the miscreants really not know what the dash cam was doing while they were beating on your car? If the recording was not secret, then it might not be considered eavesdropping.
It might also help you that the people abusing your car are likely breaking the law. [Fun fact: The authorization I signed to let you test drive my car did not give you permission to joy ride in it. And I HAVE litigated that issue before.] Courts often look askance at people who come before them with unclean hands, asking for help. "He eavesdropped on me while I was whipping his car!"
Of all of the cases I've seen so far–and I've seen a few–I have yet to see someone get in trouble for "eavesdropping" in their own car. But, it is just something I need to point out. I'm sure we'll hear of it one of these days. In the meantime, mute the microphone on the camera when you drop the car off – just in case. The footage will be just as funny without sound.
Here's even more that you need to know about dashcams: