Judge Throws Out Evidence Obtained By Six Weeks Of Warrantless Surveillance Footage
from the Warrants:-the-ultimate-in-unobtanium dept
Despite arguments otherwise, most of them broached by government lawyers, what can be viewed by the public may also contain a reasonable expectation of privacy.
A federal judge has just thrown out evidence obtained by law enforcement without a warrant. The case, which dates back to last year, involves Washington police and Leonel Vargas, an immigrant who law enforcement suspected of drug trafficking. Without a warrant, police installed a video camera on a nearby utility pole and aimed it at Vargas’ front yard. After over a month of recording, the police got lucky: Vargas, an undocumented immigrant, decided to perform target practice in the front yard of his rural Washington home. This gave officers the probable cause they needed (illegal weapons possession) to search Vargas’ house. The resulting search uncovered drugs and guns, leading to his arrest and indictment.
Vargas objected to this violation of his privacy. The government argued that Vargas’ publicly-viewable front yard and door couldn’t be considered private. This argument waged back and forth for several months, with the EFF entering an amicus brief on behalf of the defendant at the invitation of the court late last year.
The EFF has some good news to report, and it’s all contained in a minute order by Judge Shea.
Law enforcement’s warrantless and constant covert video surveillance of Defendant’s rural front yard is contrary to the public’s reasonable expectation of privacy and violates Defendant’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search. The video evidence and fruit of the video evidence are suppressed.
As the EFF points out, even public areas have privacy implications. While no one reasonably expects the front of their house to be a private area in the strictest sense, they do reasonably expect that no one will place it under uninterrupted observation for extended periods of time… at least not without a warrant.
The hitch, of course, is that the privacy violation is tied to the length of time and the type of the surveillance. There’s no specific point at which privacy protections kick back in (so to speak), so decisions like this are being made on a case-by-case basis. Given the courts’ general slack-cutting when it comes to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, this is probably the best we can expect for the time being.
Considering how much time elapsed between the installation of the camera and the capture of incriminating footage, it’s hard to see why local law enforcement didn’t pursue other investigative methods or obtain a warrant. Now, because it opted for warrantless, long-term surveillance, its most incriminating evidence can’t be used against the suspected drug trafficker. Law enforcement agencies often claim that the securing of warrants takes too much time and allows criminals to escape arrest, but in far too many cases, the actual facts contradict these arguments.