What Is the "Reasonable Expectation of Privacy"?
The reasonable expectation of privacy is an element of privacy law that determines in which places and in which activities a person has a legal right to privacy. Sometimes referred to as the "right to be left alone," a person's reasonable expectation of privacy means that someone who unreasonably and seriously compromises another's interest in keeping her affairs from being known can be held liable for that exposure or intrusion.
Keep in mind that an expectation of privacy isn't absolute -- it must also be "reasonable." This means that the disclosure or discovery of a private matter must have happened when the plaintiff was in a place or situation in which the average person would be offended at being intruded upon. Below are some examples of places or activities where a reasonable expectation of privacy might exist.
Reasonable Expectation of Privacy and the Constitution
It's important to note that the expectation of privacy discussed here means something different than when it's used in connection with searches by persons acting on behalf of a city, state, or federal government. In those cases, the expectation of privacy refers to those places where the U.S. Constitution requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant in order to search for evidence of a crime, such as a person's home or car.
This article discusses expectations of privacy only in connection with those cases in state courts where a private citizen compromises the solitude or seclusion of another private citizen. Because invasion of privacy laws vary by jurisdiction, something that can make a person liable in one state might not do so elsewhere.
Expectation of Privacy in the Home
Probably the clearest example of a place where there's a reasonable expectation of privacy is in the home. A person doesn't have to be a homeowner for the law to protect that expectation; tenants who rent their homes also have a protected right to privacy. Moreover, invasion of privacy doesn't just mean that someone physically enters a place where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. It can also happen if someone uses electronic equipment to monitor or record what someone is doing in the home.
For example, suppose a married couple rent an apartment from a landlord in a multi-unit building. After a while, they discover that the landlord had installed a device in the bedroom that could transmit and record any sounds in that room. The landlord would be liable to the couple for invading their privacy, and he would likely be required to compensate the couple for their mental suffering and emotional distress. This would be true even if the landlord had not actually listened to the couple or recorded them.
Expectation of Privacy in Public
A person's reasonable expectation of privacy can get a little trickier outside the home. Although someone may not have a right to seclusion when in the public view, the law can still protect people from being portrayed in a way that could be considered humiliating or from having their private details broadcast. Persons involved in accidents, or bystanders to accidents, would probably not be able to sue a newspaper or television station just for showing images of their likeness if the event is newsworthy or if it's in the public interest to know about it. For example, if a TV news crew filmed the passengers of an automobile accident being rescued, and that footage was broadcast on the evening news, the passengers probably couldn't sue the station for damages just because their images appeared in the news story.
However, the passengers may be able to sue the station if it also broadcasts conversations between the accident victims and rescue personnel inside the ambulance, since the public doesn't have a legitimate interest in such information and the victim reasonably expect the conversations to be private. Similarly, privacy law can also protect someone from being shown in the media if her image isn't used in a way that informs on a matter of public interest and publication of the image would cause her considerable embarrassment, even if no personal information is disseminated.
Learn More About Privacy Laws
There is a lot of emotion tied up in privacy issues. A lawyer can help you examine the situation with a cool head, and armed with a knowledge of the local jurisdiction's laws. Contact a local defamation attorney to learn how they can help with your case.