California Penal Code Section 631 PC: Wiretapping

1. Definition and Elements of the Crime


Wiretapping is the act of using technology to access another person’s telephone line in order to listen to that person’s phone calls. Wiretapping is often associated with law enforcement investigations and has been the subject of recent NSA scandals. However, under California Penal Code Section 631 PC, wiretapping by private citizens is a criminal offense that can result in serious felony charges.

Under the wiretapping statute, the following actions would be considered unlawful:

  1. The defendant’s use of a machine or instrument to tap into or make an unauthorized connection with a telephone or telegraph line
  2. Reading or attempting to read or listen to any message over the line without consent of all parties to the message or communication
  3. Using or attempting to use information obtained via an unlawful wiretap
  4. OR aiding or conspiring to obtain information through an unlawful wiretap

While California Penal Code Section 631 PC applies to telephone and telegraph lines, defendants accused of unlawfully intercepting cell phone calls or cordless phone calls could be prosecuted under California Penal Code Section 632.5 PC and California Penal Code Section 632.6 PC, respectively. The penalties for each offense would be the same.

It is also important to note that any information obtained through an illegal wiretapping operation would not be able to be used as evidence in any court proceeding (except for the criminal trial of the defendant accused of the illegal wiretap).

2. Related Offenses

Other similar or related offenses include:

  1. Eavesdropping – California Penal Code Section 632 PC

3. Examples

A man believes that his upstairs neighbor is a drug dealer so he sets up a wiretap on the telephone line in order to listen to and record the neighbor’s phone conversations. The man monitors the phone lines and records several conversations in which the neighbor clearly speaks about drug transactions. The man takes his findings to the police. In this situation, the man could be charged criminally with wiretapping under California Penal Code Section 631 PC. In addition, the contents of his tapes could not be used against his neighbor for any legal purpose. In another example, a company explicitly tells all employees and customers that telephone calls are monitored and recorded. An employee of the company is caught make inappropriate calls during work which are used as a basis for firing him. The employee files a police report, however the company could not be prosecuted for illegal wiretapping as they provided notice that all calls were monitored and recorded.

4. Defenses to Wiretapping

If a person has consent to record phone calls he or she could not be charged criminally with wiretapping. However it is important to remember that the consent must come from all parties connected to the conversation.

5. Penalties

Wiretapping is considered a “wobbler” offense that can be filed by prosecutors as either a felony or a misdemeanor. If charged as a misdemeanor, the defendant can be sentenced to up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2500. If charged as a felony, the maximum penalty one could receive is three years in prison. If the defendant has a previous conviction for wiretapping, eavesdropping, intercepting a cell phone call or intercepting a cordless phone call, the fine amount rises to $10,000.

In addition to criminal penalties, the victim of a criminal wiretapping case is entitled to civil damages as a result of the defendant’s conduct. The victim of such action is statutorily entitled to up to three times the amount of damages suffered or $5000, whichever amount is greater. Even if no damages were suffered, the victim could still sue the defendant for up to $5000.

6. Criminal Defense for Wiretapping Cases

Wiretapping is a serious criminal offense that could result in a felony conviction and lengthy jail or prison sentences. If you or someone you know are facing charges for this offense, it is very important that you consult with a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer to discuss your case. Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Kraut is a former Deputy District Attorney with over 14 years of prosecutorial experience who is highly regarded throughout the court system for his extensive legal knowledge and abilities. Mr. Kraut works hard to ensure his clients receive the best representation possible.

For more information about wiretapping, and to schedule your free consultation, contact Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer Michael Kraut at the Kraut Law Group located at 6255 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 1520, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Mr. Kraut can be reached 24/7 at 888-334-6344 or 323-464-6453.

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