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Can Someone Take My Photo Without Permission?

Everyone is a photographer in the age of social media and cell phones. It is easier than ever to whip out a smartphone from a purse or pocket to snap a picture of whatever a person wants to document. Whether close up or from a distance, a photo or video can quickly capture and preserve a moment in time, for better or worse.

All this picture-taking and videotaping leads many people to wonder about their right to privacy and when photography crosses the line into a violation of privacy.

'My Neighbor Took My Picture'

Let's say one day you are gardening and minding your own business in your yard when you see your neighbor taking your picture from their upstairs window. You feel as though your privacy has been violated. But has your neighbor broken the law? Probably not.

If the neighbor taking the photo was on their property — where they had a right to be — and if you were outside in public view, the neighbor likely didn't violate any privacy laws by snapping your photo. The First Amendment even provides a Constitutional right to photography and videotaping in public spaces.

This disclaimer is a shock to many, mainly because a photo can be taken from far away, perhaps without the subject's permission or knowledge.

When Does Taking a Photo Violate Privacy Rights?

Whether picture-taking violates the photo subject's privacy rights depends on that person's reasonable expectation of privacy (REP) where the photo was taken. The more public a place is, the less REP a person has. For example, your REP at a park or on the street is very limited.

But, you can reasonably expect privacy inside your home or another private place, such as a changing room. Sometimes, you have a REP inside a public place, such as in a bathroom at a park or a locker room at a gym.

Consider the example above with the neighbor. Your REP might change depending on whether you were in your front or back yard when your neighbor snapped the photo. For instance, if there is a fence around your backyard, you may have a claim that there is a higher REP than in the front yard.

It is generally OK for people to take photographs at any public place or any private place that they own or rent. Being present on someone else's private property generally requires the property owner's consent to take photos. You would also need permission to be there in the first place, or you'd be trespassing.

That said, if the photographer is taking photos for a purpose that violates state law — to harass or stalk — that's another story in criminal law that can stretch beyond civil invasion of privacy.

Other Inappropriate Photo Ops

Let's say you arrive at a public accident scene and snap a photo of the car accident and the police officers tending to the injured parties at a busy New York intersection. It turns out the unharmed driver in one of the vehicles is a celebrity, so you photograph them for a commercial purpose. Perhaps you want to show they were not injured because the car they were driving is a better, safer buy.

Here, you can get in trouble for stealing the celebrity's rights of publicity, which is similar in concept to intellectual property rights. This gives protection to the celebrity's name and likeness for commercial uses. In this situation, it doesn't matter that your photography took place in a public space or that the alleged victim had no reasonable expectation of privacy. You may be liable for trying to profit off their rights of publicity by selling your paparazzi photos to a car manufacturer.

What if your photography frames the uninjured driver in a way that makes them look like they caused the accident or the wrongful death of one of the accident victims when they were not at fault? You could be liable for defamation or false light torts for wrongfully harming the driver's reputation, even though their privacy rights were not violated.

Enforcing Your Privacy Rights

Enforcing an action for a violation of privacy can be complex. If you or your family members believe that your privacy rights have been violated, contact a personal injury attorney near you who can provide legal advice and help determine what recourse you may have.

A personal injury lawyer's practice area usually covers legal action against insurance companies. It can also cover filing a personal injury case if necessary. Some personal injury lawyers may give you a consultation about your legal issues without charging any fees.

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