Federal Appeals Court Rules On Butt Dialers’ Privacy Rights

A federal appeals court has ruled on whether or not a person who accidentally and unknowingly butt dials someone has a right to expect privacy. Many cell phone users have accidentally butt dialed someone in their recent calls list or from their contacts list. Sometimes, a cell phone -pressed just right as it sits inside of a pocket or purse- begins to dial a random contact, but when that contact realizes that the call was accidental, do they have to hang up?

Butt dialing is very common. For example, a couple of years ago, New York City 911 operators received nearly 4 million accidental calls from cell phones on account of butt dialing. A federal appeals court in Cincinnati heard the case of a woman who used one of these accidental phone calls to eavesdrop on conversations between two of her superiors at work. The call lasted 91 minutes. Not only did Carol Spaw listen to the conversations of her bosses, she also took notes and recorded the final few minutes of the butt-dialed call with an iPhone that was nearby!

The court ended up ruling in favor of Spaw, the woman who listened to 91 minutes of what her bosses believed was a private conversation. The court ruled that butt-dialed calls are technically preventable and are due to the dialers’ own negligence. Spaw’s superiors, James Huff and Larry Savage, according to the court ruling, legally had no right to privacy in that situation. Huff did admit that he had butt dialed others in the past and knew that there was a risk of it happening again. Huff and Savage, members of the airport board in Kenton County, Kentucky, were in Italy when Huff inadvertently called the assistant’s phone while she was still in Kentucky.

Technically, the second and accidental call wasn’t a butt dial, because Huff had placed the phone in his breast pocket, but that only made the inadvertent call even easier for Shaw to hear. There was no sound being muffled through furniture. With the phone in Huff’s breast pocket, Spaw, unbeknownst to Huff and Savage, was front and center at the dinner table where the two board members were enjoying a meal in Italy. Spaw had been the last person Huff had called intentionally before putting the phone in his pocket, reports say.

At first, Spaw answered the accidental phone call and shouted “hello” into the phone a couple of times. When she realized the men were discussing replacing CEO Candace McGraw, her direct supervisor, she decided to listen in. She says she believed the two men were trying to discriminate against McGraw, so she felt obligated to take advantage of the pocket call. She also brought in a co-worker, and the two listened to the conversation on speaker phone.

Spaw then compiled her notes into a typed memo and passed the text of the conversation and the few minutes of audio along to the two men’s fellow airport board members. Spaw was then accused by Huff and his wife (who also spoke during the 91 minute controversial call) of being in violation of the Wiretap Act of 1968. Luckily for Shaw, the judge didn’t see it that way.

“Exposure need not be deliberate and instead can be the inadvertent product of neglect,” Judge Danny Boggs explained, finding that Shaw did not violate the law against wiretapping. The federal judge then gave some helpful pointers on how to prevent butt dialing in the future. One suggestion was an app called Smart Pocket Guard. Another suggestion was making sure the phone has a lock and passcode on it.

Neither Huff nor Savage still sit on the Kenton County Airport Board. Chairman Jim Huff, Vice Chairman Larry Savage (as well as a fellow board member named Mark Arnzen) all resigned from their positions in 2014 by submitting their resignation letters to Kenton County Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus, according to WLWT News. The resignations followed revelations that nearly a quarter of a million dollars was spent by airport board members (in only three years) on lavish travel and dining expenses, according to CNN.

Do you agree with the judge? Have you ever listened in on someone’s conversation after they pocket dialed you? If you butt dialed someone, would you expect privacy and expect the person you accidentally called to just hang up?

[Photo via Pixabay.com]