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Is it legal to use a dash cam?

ByDave Stopher

May 15, 2021

Dash cams have become a ubiquitous feature in the modern driving experience. They are a cool item to have in your car. They have increasingly become smaller, with high-definition and lots of cool features that allow you capture goofy or some spectacular events in our roadways with great clarity.

The modern dash cam is a delightful gadget to have in your car but just how legal are they?

In the US, the use of dash cams is protected by the First Amendment at the federal level. That means you can buy a dash cam and use it to liberally record events in public spaces. However, it is not a lawless world out here. As we shall see, even as Federal law allows for unrestricted dash cam usage, there are different state laws in places that put a cap on just how much you can use your dash cam.

The first and most pervasive legal issue across multiple states on the use of dash cams is the mounting mechanism of the dash cam. While states allow the use of dash cams in public spaces, there are stipulations on where the dash cameras should or shouldn’t be installed. The most problematic is the fitting of dash cams on the vehicle’s front windshields. Most states prohibit or restrict this.

The second issue is with regards to surveillance and just how much you can record with your dash cam. If you are driving across state lines, it is important that you are well-versed with the differing state laws when it comes to the use dash cams, particularly when recording conversations. The differences are not significant enough to render your dash cams practically useless when you cross state lines but they are significant enough to land you in hot soup when you fail to adhere to state laws.

The Question of Obstructed Views

This is the most nagging legal conundrum when it comes to the use of dashboard cameras. A design innovation, and challenge, with most modern dashcams is that they are built with suction cup mounting mechanisms that more easily attach to the vehicle’s windshield than the dashboard. They are, in effect, ‘windshield cameras’. The suction cup mechanism more easily adheres to the windshield and most drivers love having them there. However, state authorities have a totally different idea on the best position to mount dash cams and they see the windshield mounting as obstructing or distracting the driver ‘s view which can be dangerous in busy highways.

As a result, many jurisdictions have restrictions or stipulations on just how much of the windshield should be obstructed by your dash cameras and other gadgets such as GPS navigation which also have an efficient suction cup mounting mechanism that works best on the vehicle’s windshield.

Generally, the dash cam shouldn’t occupy more than 5-inch square on the driver’s side. On the passenger’s side, the dashboard camera shouldn’t occupy more than 7-inch square. There are some jurisdictions that impose even prohibitions on dashcam mounting on the windshield. In certain jurisdictions, there aren’t any restrictions on dashcam mounting on the windshield. Due to these differences in on windshield obstruction restrictions, it is always prudent to study the local laws regarding dash cam usage and mounting when you are crossing state lines or international borders.

If unsure about the local laws regarding windshield obstruction regulations when it comes to dash cam usage, contact a local lawyer or law enforcement officer for competent advice. You can also read the various local websites of the disparate jurisdictions for comprehensive information on dash camera mounting.

Where the dash cam is deemed to be obstructing your view, you could face fines which vary from state to state. Besides, footage recorded from a dash cam placed in a section of the windscreen that is seen as illegal (obstructing your view) could be inadmissible in court proceedings.

What is the Best Position for Dash Cam Placement on the Windscreen?

The ideal position for placing a dashboard camera in some jurisdictions is behind the rear-view mirror. The rear-view mirror does not present any obstructions to the driver. It, therefore, goes without saying that a dash cam placed behind it will not present any obstructions to your view of both sides of the road and should be perfectly legal in most jurisdictions in and outside the US. During the fitment of the dash cam, ensure that the power lead is neatly tucked behind the edge of the windscreen as dangling cables could be a distraction on the windscreen.

In the US, however, it is illegal to fit a dash cam or any other gadget on any part of the windscreen in most states. There are states that allow it but they are only a handful. Generally, when you attach a dash cam or any other device, including stickers, that is deemed to be blocking your view, chances are that you will be pulled over and fined for the violation.

The only US states without any restriction or regulation on dash cam placement on the windscreen are Missouri and North Carolina. The rest of the states have laws that either outrightly prohibit or restrict dash cam placement on the vehicle windscreen.

Dash Cams, Surveillance, Privacy Concerns and Data Protection Laws

When it comes to privacy and data protection concerns, jurisdictions in Europe tend to impose severer regulations than in the US. Dash cam usage raises a lot of privacy and ethical concerns, particularly if the captured footage captures private conversations and is to be shared publicly. Depending on your jurisdiction, you may find yourself violating some electronic surveillance laws.

The US state of Maryland, for instance, criminalizes the recording of someone’s voice without their consent so if you do that and upload it online, you could face a lawsuit from the aggrieved party. However, you can still use your dash cam to record without someone’s consent in case that person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy on the conversation that is captured by the dash cam.

Some states do not provide for a reasonable expectation of privacy clause in their laws so you will always find yourself in violation of local laws when you record someone without their consent.

Some US states such as Illinois had laws that made it illegal to record a law enforcement officer with any recording device be it a video camera, dash cam or smartphone although this has since been struck down.

Eavesdropping Statutes

There are also some states that have instituted eavesdropping statutes. For instance, if you drive into a convenience store or auto shop and your dash cam keeps rolling and captures some conversation that you aren’t part of, some state laws may regard this as eavesdropping and you might face felony charges.

The legal terrain of dash cam usage is still a murky one although it isn’t very complex so it is something that you can easily navigate. The benefits of owning one, no doubt, far outweigh the legal challenges associated with operating one.

It is also important to keep in mind that the laws and statutes regulating dash cam usage aren’t cast in iron. They are always subject to frequent changes. If you are planning to purchase and install a dash cam in your car, be sure to have a chat with a lawyer or law enforcement officer to properly understand the legal terrain that you will be operating in.