Peeping Tom Laws

How should you handle your nosy neighbors—and their binoculars?

Adam Freedman
3-minute read

Hello, and welcome to Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. I’m your host, Adam Freedman.

But first, your daily dose of legalese: This podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship with any listener. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Is Being a Peeping Tom Illegal?

Today’s episode: Peeping Toms. Dan from New York City writes: “The other day I noticed a guy using binoculars to look while my girlfriend was changing. Is this legal? Are the laws different for viewing with the naked eye vs. using binoculars?”

Great question, Dan! The short answer is that in some states you could press charges under so-called “Peeping Tom” laws, but you’re probably out of luck in New York.

As every New Yorker knows, neighbors are supposed to keep to themselves. When they get nosy, it’s a major pain but, unfortunately, nosiness and even a certain degree of voyeurism may be legal unless your state or city has adopted a so-called Peeping Tom law.

What Are Peeping Tom Laws?

These laws get their name from the legend of Lady Godiva. As you no doubt recall, Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry, England to protest high taxes. She asked the townspeople not to look at her in the nude but one man -- there’s always one -- a tailor named Tom, just couldn’t keep his eyes shut. The tailor, who became known as Peeping Tom, was struck blind, or dead depending on the version, the moment he saw her.

But anyway. Peeping Tom laws generally make it a crime to view and/or photograph or film a person without his or her consent. Peeping Tom statutes differ from state to state, but they usually require:

  1. That the victim did not realize he or she was being viewed;
  2. That the victim was fully or partially naked, and
  3. That the viewing took place at a place where the victim had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

What is a “Reasonable Expectation of Privacy”?

“Reasonable expectation of privacy” is a term borrowed from constitutional law, which requires that the police obtain a search warrant if they wish to conduct a search in a place where you would have a reasonable expectation of privacy.   There’s no exact definition of “reasonable expectation of privacy” but basically, private homes, dressing rooms, tanning booths, college dormitory rooms, and restrooms are the sorts of places protected. Public beaches, parks and swimming pools are not. So Dan, certainly you and your girlfriend ought to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your apartment.

The Complexity of Peeping Tom Laws

However, as you will have noticed, Peeping Tom laws also tend to have a number of other specific conditions, like nudity and lack of consent. The reason for these conditions is to allow the Peeping Tom laws to pass constitutional scrutiny from the courts. The Constitution requires that criminal statutes be sufficiently definite and clear so as to give citizens advance notice of the conduct that is prohibited. In 1976, the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down a Peeping Tom statute as being too vague. That law stated: “Any person who shall peep secretly into any room occupied by a female person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be fined or imprisoned in the discretion of the court.” That decision and others like it led state legislatures to draft more exacting privacy laws.

One of the conditions adopted by New York and other states is that a Peeping Tom must be using a camera, videocam, or some other device to record a visual image of the victim. Mere looking doesn’t suffice to violate New York’s law.   A couple of years ago, a New York City Council member introduced a more stringent anti-voyeurism law, but so far it hasn’t gone anywhere. Having said that, Dan if you have any evidence that your neighbor has a hostile intent (versus just looking) you should of course report your suspicions to the police.

[[AdMiddle]There are some states, such as Missouri, where the Peeping Tom law prohibits any secret viewing of a person without their consent, regardless of whether the perpetrator is using a camera, binoculars, or just the naked eye, so to speak.

Living in close quarters and the lack of a strong Peeping Tom law are disadvantages to living in Gotham. But Dan, as a fellow New Yorker, I wouldn’t urge you to leave the city. For the time being, just do like the rest of us, and pull down the shade. 

You can send questions and comments to legal@quickanddirtytips.com.  Please note that doing so will not create an attorney-client relationship and will be used for the purposes of this podcast only.

About the Author

Adam Freedman

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and a regular contributor to Point of Law and Ricochet. Freedman’s legal commentary has been featured in The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and on Public Radio. He holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Naked Constitution (2012).