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When Can You Legally Record a Conversation in California?

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Andrew Ramstad

Associate Attorney

Sometimes when parties have a dispute, one of them may seek to record the other person to obtain evidence relevant to the disagreement.  However, federal and state laws vary as to the legality of recording a person without their consent.  For instance, states like Florida are much more restrictive than New York and New Jersey.

Generally, in California, you cannot legally record a conversation without the other person’s consent, but such evidence may be admissible in criminal cases even if it was unlawfully recorded.  The rules are confusing, so it is best to consult an attorney about what to do.

California State Law

Unlike New York and New Jersey, California is a “two-party consent” state.  This makes it illegal to record a private conversation unless all parties consent to the recording.  A violation of this law is a criminal misdemeanor.

Federal Law and Interstate Recordings

Under federal law, only one party’s consent is required when recording a conversation.  Accordingly, you can record your own conversation with another person whether in-person or on the phone.  However, there are different rules if the participants in the recorded conversation are in another state.

Generally, if both parties are within the same state, the state law will apply.  When one party is in California and the other one is outside the state, the two-party consent rule applies to actors outside of California, if they are communicating with people in California who have not given consent.  Essentially, California protects those in the state from being recorded without their consent even where the out-of-state actor is in a state which permits “one party consent.”

This is a crucial point for businesses outside of California to understand.  If they record conversations with customers in California without obtaining their consent, they may be held liable for damages regardless of whether they operate from a one-party consent state.

Illegal wiretapping is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for an individual.  Violators may also have to pay compensatory and punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

Admissibility of Recorded Conversations in California

Typically, recorded conversations are inadmissible in court as hearsay.  However, California allows an illegally recorded conversation to be admitted as evidence in criminal cases, provided it falls within a hearsay exception.  For example, the recording may be allowed as a declaration against interest, an inconsistent or contemporaneous statement, a party admission or used to impeach a witness.  This is the same rule as under federal law.


California provides significant protection to individuals from being recorded without their consent.  Those who break the law can be subject to both civil and criminal liability.  If you are involved in a lawsuit and considering recording a conversation or believe you have been illegally recorded, consult one of our attorneys to understand your legal rights and risks.

Photo by Onur Binay on Unsplash

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