Global Freedom of Expression

Huff v. Spaw

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    July 21, 2015
  • Outcome
    Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part
  • Case Number
    2015 WL 4430466
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law
  • Themes
    Privacy, Data Protection and Retention

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

James Huff inadvertently “pocket-dialed” Carol Spaw, who listened to his conversation for 91 minutes with a work colleague and his wife. James Huff and his wife sued Carol Spaw on the grounds that she intercepted their private conversation, which was in violation of Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Street Act of 1968.

The district court ruled against the Huffs, stating that he lacked reasonable expectation that their conversation would not be intercepted. The court of appeals, affirmed the decision against James Huff, but reversed it against Bertha Huff because she could not be held responsible for her husband’s pocket-dial.


James Huff was a chairman of the Kentucky Airport Board of the Cincinatti/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Carol Spaw worked as a senior executive assistant to the airport’s CEO, Candace McGraw.

James Huff and Larry Savage, a vice chairman of the airport board, traveled to Italy for a business conference. After the conference, Huff and Savage went to the balcony to discuss the airport and the possibility of replacing McGraw. While on the balcony, Huff called Spaw to make dinner reservations using his iPhone, but misdialed the number. He put the iPhone in his breast pocket. Savage later was able to call Spaw using his cellphone. After the conversation, they hung up their cellphones.

After, the iPhone in Huff’s pocket pocket-dialed Spaw. Spaw answered and said “hello” several times but got no response. She could not understand what Huff and Savage were talking about and called her colleague to help decipher the conversation, which they soon realized was about McGraw’s employment. Spaw felt that it was her responsibility to record the conversation and report it through appropriate channels.

The conversation lasted 91 minutes. The first 40 minutes were airport related. Then, Savage and Huff went into a conference room and stayed there until minute 70 of the call. After, Savage and Huff walked back to their hotel rooms and Spaw heard them talk about private matters, such as their children’s activities and napping. At minute 75 of the call,  Huff called his wife from his hotel room. During the call, he discussed the earlier conversation with Savage.

Spaw obtained an recording device from her company while the conversation was going on and recorded the last 4 minutes and 21 seconds of it. Spaw made a typewritten summary of the conversation and shared it along with the 4 minute recording with other members of the Airport board.

James and Bertha Huff then sued Spaw for intentionally intercepting their oral communication and using its contents in violation of U.S. law.

The district court ruled that there was no violation since the Huffs’ expectation that their conversation would not be intercepted was not reasonable under the circumstances.

Decision Overview

Title III of the 18 U.S.C. § 2511(1)(a) makes it unlawful to intentionally intercept and then disclose oral, wire, or electronic communication. The court reiterated that a person’s oral communication is protected of if he exhibited a subjectively and objectively reasonable expectation of privacy.

The court applied the following two-part test to determine a reasonable expectation of privacy: (1) whether a person exhibited an expectation of privacy,and (2) whether that expectation was reasonable. The court clarified that the first part of the test requires more than an internal belief in privacy, and instead must be exhibited. The second part was clarified as to be satisfied when society recognizes the expectation as reasonable.

The court specified that exposure that puts one in plain view and thus causes the loss of the reasonable expectation of privacy must not be deliberate. Moreover, the court cited judicial precedent where a person did not exhibit a reasonable expectation of privacy when he knew or should have knows that a device might grant others access to his statements or activities.

In this case, James Huff admitted that he was aware of the risk of pocket-dialing and did not undertake measure to prevent it, such as locking his screen or setting a passcode.

As for Bertha Huff, she was in her hotel room, which the courts generally treat as homes and thus possessing an expectation of privacy. She remained in her hotel room during the conversation with her husband. The court also reiterated that someone who knowingly speaks to a person wearing an interception device can still enjoy an expectation of privacy. Based on these standards, the court ruled that Bertha Huff had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

The court interestingly suggested that a person using an iPhone should be aware of its capacity to pocket-dial and thus his expectation of privacy is not reasonable unless he or she takes precautions. The boundaries of this logic could potentially be expanded to violate privacy as technology is becoming more intrusive.

On the other hand, the case enforced the legal capacity of people to gather information, which is useful for freedom of information purposes.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

The case’s was decided by the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals and as such has broad precedent.

Official Case Documents

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