GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – U.S. District Judge William Griesbach ruled yesterday that police are free, in some circumstance, to install hidden surveillance cameras on private property without obtaining a warrant.
At issue was whether Drug Enforcement Administration agents had a reasonable right to install “covert digital surveillance cameras” on private property without a warrant, in this case in hopes of gaining evidence that 30 to 40 marijuana plants were being grown.
As technology continues to evolve, the legal system is continually rethinking to what extent Americans’ privacy rights are protected by law. Drones, GPS tracking, and other covert surveillance methods are coming under increasing scrutiny by those who see infringement on some of America’s most guarded and honored constitutional rights.
Griesbach adopted a recommendation by U.S. Magistrate Judge William Callahan that said that the DEA’s warrantless surveillance did not violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and requires that warrants describe the place that’s being searched. “The Supreme Court has upheld the use of technology as a substitute for ordinary police surveillance,” Callahan wrote.
Two defendants in the case, Manuel Mendoza and Marco Magana of Green Bay, Wis., have been charged with federal drug crimes after DEA agent Steven Curran claimed to have discovered more than 1,000 marijuana plants grown on the property, and face possible life imprisonment and fines of up to $10 million. Mendoza and Magana asked Callahan to throw out the video evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, noting that “No Trespassing” signs were posted throughout the heavily wooded, 22-acre property owned by Magana and that it also had a locked gate.
U.S. Attorney James Santelle, successfully argued that warrantless surveillance cameras on private property “does not violate the Fourth Amendment.”
Judge Callahan based his recommendation on a 1984 Supreme Court case Oliver v. United States, in which a majority of the justices ruled that “open fields” could be searched without warrants. The Justices based the ruling on their interpretation that open fields are not covered under the Fourth Amendment.
Attorneys arguing before that court claimed such lands should be protected since they were “curtilage.” This is land immediately surrounding a residence which is afforded greater privacy protections by the Fourth Amendment.
“Placing a video camera in a location that allows law enforcement to record activities outside of a home and beyond protected curtilage does not violate the Fourth Amendment,” Justice Department prosecutors James Santelle and William Lipscomb told Callahan.
A warrant was granted in this case but four days after the DEA’s warrantless installation of surveillance cameras.
“That one’s actions could be recorded on their own property, even if the property is not within the curtilage, is contrary to society’s concept of privacy,” wrote Brett Reetz, Magana’s attorney, in a legal filing last month. “The owner and his guest… had reason to believe that their activities on the property were not subject to video surveillance as it would constitute a violation of privacy.”