New law makes it easier to sue nosy neighbors

Legislative Gazette photo by James Gormley

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Wednesday making it easier to sue neighbors who videotape private property.

Following reports of cameras being installed to unlawfully videotape neighboring backyards, the bill signed this week (S.870-a/A.861-a) establishes a private right of action for damages caused by the unwarranted video imaging of residential property.

“Everyone should be able to feel safe in their own home and in their own back yard,” Cuomo said. “This legislation will crack down on disturbing behavior and give New Yorkers legal recourse and peace of mind in order to protect their privacy and potentially their own personal safety.”

Lawmakers have continuously updated state privacy laws in an attempt to keep up with new technologies that make spying, surveillance and voyeurism easy.

Unlawful surveillance was made a crime in 2003 with the passage of Stephanie’s Law, however, it only establishes criminal penalties for unlawful video surveillance when the videotaping occurs in a setting with a “reasonable expectation of privacy” — a bathroom, bedroom or changing room, for example — or if a perpetrator had to trespass on property to videotape or install a camera.

Stephanie’s Law was named after Stephanie Fuller, a woman who discovered that she was being videotaped by her landlord when her boyfriend noticed strange wires coming out of the smoke alarm in her bedroom. Because her landlord used a video camera that was not filming Stephanie through her window, he could not be charged with violating New York’s “Peeping Tom” laws.

The new law signed Wednesday provides additional protections for homeowners, giving them the ability to sue a neighbor for invasion of privacy if the neighbor secretly records recreational activities in their backyard.

“Protecting the privacy of New Yorkers is paramount to ensuring a sense of security for individuals and families on their own property,” said Senate sponsor Catharine Young. “This legislation will extend protections for an individual’s right to privacy in their own backyard while cracking down on illicit invasions of privacy that may occur on their property.”

The bill memo notes that in at least one instance, a family has been subject to “undue stress and concern” for their young children’s safety when they were subject to constant camera surveillance while swimming or sunbathing in their own backyard by an adjoining neighbor who is a registered sex offender.

“It is disturbing that some individuals have been purposely filming their neighbors, including young children, in their backyards,” said Assembly sponsor Edward Braunstein. “Since I introduced this legislation in the Assembly, I have heard from people around the state who have been victimized by this practice. This law will provide families with legal recourse in the event that someone tries to invade the privacy they deserve in their backyards.”