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Wiretapping and Divorce
Can a person record or tape a conversation of their spouse?
Pursuant to federal and state wire tapping statutes, a person is legally permitted to record and tape a conversation only if the person who is doing the recording or taping is a party to the conversation. A person can't tape their spouse while they are talking to other people, and more specifically their paramour.
In 1991, a New Jersey trial court in the case of M.G. v. J.C., 254 N.J. Super. 470 (Ch. Div. 1991), addressed the issue as to whether a husband violated the wiretapping statute by taping his wife's telephone communications in the marital home, and whether such actions could result in damages. The court ruled that it was illegal for a person to record the phone conversations of his spouse with another person. The court reasoned that the invasion of privacy was severe. The court found that the secretive taping of a spouse's telephone calls under those circumstances as an egregious invasion that warranted both compensation and punitive damages.
Therefore, although both New Jersey and Federal Wire Tap Laws permit the taping of a conversation to which an individual is a party, any other form of taping or recording of another persons' conversation can be violation of criminal and civil wiretap laws.
I believe that my husband is cheating on me. Can I wiretap his phone?
Divorce is a nasty business. In my experience, I have encountered many cases wherein spouses wiretap the home phone, the spouse's office phone or the cellular phone in order to obtain information about their spouse's affair or other information. In New Jersey, the use of an unauthorized tape conversation is inadmissable because the illegal taping violates state and federal law. The spouse could be civilly or criminally liable as a result of attempting to introduce such information.
Many divorce lawyers have had the experience of having a client walk into the office stating that they have absolute proof of their spouse's adultery and cheating ways. In most cases, these conversations are not admissible. Thereafter, the clients "fess up" as to the illegal manner in which they obtained the proof. The clients usually admit that the taped phone conversations were obtained through the unauthorized recording of their spouse's telephone conversation with their new lover. I always immediately advise the client that he/she has violated both New Jersey and Federal Wiretapping laws. If a client has obtained illegally intercepted communications, then he/she should destroy them, and not attempt to use them to obtain an advantage in any upcoming divorce case. The clients must be further advised that they may have violated both New Jersey and Federal Wiretap Statutes, which may expose them to criminal penalties, as well as severe civil penalties.
In summary, the intercepted phone conversations may give a spouse enough proof and motivation to start divorce proceedings. However, the means used to obtain these taped phone conversations can prove to be disastrous. The spouse who conducted the illegal wiretapping can be exposed to a civil lawsuit by his/her former spouse. Moreover, there is potential criminal liability as well.
Can I intercept my spouse's cell phone calls?
The State of New Jersey has adopted a more restrictive wiretap statute than the Federal Act. New Jersey's Wiretap Statute defines a wire communication to include "any electronic storage of such communication, and the radio portion of a cordless telephone communication that is transmitted between the cordless telephone handset and the base unit." This is the opposite of the Federal Statute, which exempts cordless phones. Thus, under New Jersey law the Wiretap Statute prohibits interception of cell phone communications.
Can I intercept my spouse's pager communications?
A spouse who suspects adultery often seizes their spouse's pager and scan the memory for telephone numbers. Scanning a spouse's pager may provide proof of adultery. An interesting issue then arises? Is the retrieval of stored telephone numbers on a pager a violation of the wiretap act? On a Federal level, the answer would appear to be no. The New Jersey Wiretap Act is more stringent and defines "wire communication" as including "electronic storage of such communication."
Can I intercept my spouse's emails?
In my experience many spouses are busted for adultery by having their emails reviewed. The internet has many programs that enable a person to retrieve deleted e-mails. We are now living in an information era. In the past the most common way a person was busted for adultery was by having them trailed by an investigator. In the current world, most common method how a person is busted for adultery is by having their e-mails reviewed.
An interesting issue then arises. Can a spouse retrieve e-mail messages and records of chat room activity without violating the Wiretap Act? There is no easy answer to this question. If the computer is located in the marital home, then in most cases the interception of e-mails will not constitute a violation of New Jersey and Federal Wiretapping laws. However, if a spouse tries to intercept e-mails on their spouse's computer at work, then this most definitely would violate several New Jersey and Federal laws.
An interesting case is White v. White, 344 N.J. Super. 211 (Ch. Div. 2001). This is the first reported New Jersey decision addressing the admissibility of a husband's "private" e-mail communications between himself and his girlfriend accessed by the wife's computer expert. This case was litigated in the Union County Family Court before the Honorable Judge Issenman. The court denied the husband's motion to suppress the e-mails on the grounds that the wife's action violated the New Jersey Wiretap Act. Finding that the e-mails had been stored; i.e. saved, "post-transmission" in the husband's personal file cabinet (PFC), the court held that the Wiretap Act only applies to communications that are in transmission, and not those that have been previously sent and saved.
The White court further held that the wife's accessing the husband' "private" e-mail communications did not constitute an invasion of privacy since the husband had no objective reasonable expectation thereof. The evidence was such that the e-mails were accessed from a computer maintained in a sun room that the husband had been occupying during the parties' in-house separation; that the wife and the parties three children were in and out of the room for various reasons, including to use the computer; and that while easy to do, the husband failed to employ any privacy protection mechanisms to preen unwarranted intrusions into his PFC. The court also found that the wife's arguable snooping into her husband personal affairs to learn information about his possible affair was no uncommon under such circumstances.
What are the other potential legal ramifications of accessing my spouse's stored computer files?
In many cases, a spouse who suspects adultery will hack into their cheating spouse's computer files and e-mails. As discussed above, if the computer is not located in the marital residence, then this intrusion will constitute a violation of both New Jersey and Federal Wiretapping laws. In addition, there may be some tort liability as well. Hacking into your spouse's computer may constitute the common-law tort of invasion of privacy or invasion of seclusion. Hacking into your spouse's computer also could be considered to by a theft charge. However, in my experience it is very unlikely that any prosecutor would file any type of criminal charges if a spouse hacked into a home computer. The prosecutor may be more interested in pursuing theft charges if the computer hacking occurs on the cheating spouse's computer that is located at his place of employment, or from a computer system from a corporation or a financial institution.
What is the "lowdown" of the law with regard to intercepting spouse's e-mails and computer records?
With the current prevalence of internet sex and the resulting divorce litigation, wiretapping violations are prevalent in many divorce cases. A spouse who tries to prove adultery by retrieving messages from hard drives, internet services, recycle bins, or other areas of storage, could clearly be in violation of both New Jersey and Federal Wiretapping laws. In summary, the information that was obtained to verify the adulterous relations may be invaluable on a personal level. However, any evidence that is obtained by illegal wiretapping or by illegal hacking into a spouse's computer should not be used as leverage in a divorce case. An experienced divorce lawyer can actually use the act of illegal wiretapping as grounds to file a civil suit against the violating spouse. The civil suit will be filed as part of the divorce case and it is called a Tevis claim. The cheating spouse can actually use the wiretapping violation as a bargaining chip to obtain a more favorable divorce settlement.
New Jersey is an equitable distribution state, meaning that the division of property in a divorce is to be done fairly, not necessarily equally. The court can take into consideration any factor it deems relevant when dividing property, but it must consider certain factors, such as how long the couple was married and the age and health of both spouses, the income or property brought to the marriage by each spouse, the standard of living that was achieved during the marriage, and the extent to which one spouse may have deferred career goals, among others.
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