Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Eavesdroppers Definition:

Those convicted of the obsolete offence of intentional, covert and direct listening-in to another's conversations, and the subsequent use of the contents thereof to disturb the peace.

Related Terms: Wire-tapping

Also spelled eaves-droppers (with a hyphen).

In one of the oldest law dictionaries of all-time, that of Termes de la Ley (see biography of William Rastell), an eavesdropper is defined as:

"... such as stand under the walls or windows by night or day to hear news, and carry them to others, to make strife and debate amongst their neighbours."1

William Blackstone's definition:

"[S]uch as listen under walls or windows or the eaves of a house, to hearken after discourse, and thereupon to frame slanderous and mischievous tales...."

In State v Pennington, the American court noted that a person who secretly and stealthily approaches near to the room occupied by a grand jury during their deliberations, is guilty of eavesdropping.

Circa 1989, California's Penal Code (§632(a)) made it illegal for any person to eavesdrop on any confidential communication by means of any amplifying or recording device. In People v Ratekin, Justice Campbell of the Court of Appeals of California, albeit within the confines of a statutory description, noted the concept of eavesdropping in modern law and distinguishing it from wire-tapping:

"[W]iretapping (is) intercepting communications by an unauthorized connection to the transmission line... [E]avesdropping (is) the interception of communications by the use of equipment which is not connected to any transmission line."


  • People v Ratekin, 212 Cal. App. 3d 1165 (1989)
  • State v Pennington, 3 Head 299 (1859)
  • Williams, Glanville, Criminal Law (London: Stevens & Sons Limited, 1953), page 563 (§171) NOTE 1.

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