Colorado Appeals Court: Three Months Of Surveillance Via Pole-Mounted Camera Is Unconstitutional
from the try-to-break-it-up-into-more-constitutional-chunks-I-guess dept
How much warrantless surveillance is too much surveillance? It depends on which court you ask.
Public areas, which include people’s front doors and unfenced yards, have very little in the way of privacy expectations. Consequently, there’s a lot of warrantless surveillance aimed at these areas, usually in the form of pole-mounted cameras. While warrants could be obtained, they usually aren’t. And, in some cases, the surveillance occurs during the early stages of an investigation where enough probable cause hasn’t been established to secure a warrant even if investigators thought they might need one.
In 2014, a Washington federal court judge said six weeks of pole-mounted surveillance was unconstitutional without a warrant. This surveillance wasn’t just passive. The camera could be controlled by officers while it was recording in addition to providing investigators with dozens of hours of recordings. This was too much for the federal court, which suppressed the video evidence obtained with the utility pole-mounted camera.
A couple of years later, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said indefinite surveillance from a pole-mounted camera doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment. It reasoned that if an ATF agent could spend an 8-hour shift surreptitiously monitoring a suspect’s rural Tennessee home without violating the Constitution, the proxy surveillance that went uninterrupted for ten weeks didn’t violate the Constitution either. What’s Constitutional for eight hours doesn’t suddenly become unconstitutional when it’s 1,680 hours.
Six weeks is bad, ten weeks is OK… and in a case from earlier this year, eight months of continuous surveillance falls on the wrong side of the Constitution. The federal court read the Supreme Court’s Carpenter decision to expand Fourth Amendment protections (specifically, expectations of privacy), even if that case only dealt with cell site location info. Also at play here were the camera’s features, which allowed investigators to remotely access and control the camera, rather than just replay recordings.
A recent decision [PDF] from the Colorado state appeals court sort of splits the difference. More than three months of continuous surveillance by a utility pole-mounted camera is too much for the Constitution to bear. (via FourthAmendment.com)
Like two of the other cases above, the camera’s movement could be controlled remotely by investigators as it recorded. This camera also did something the average passerby couldn’t do (I mean, in addition to staring at someone’s house for 13 weeks straight): it could see above the suspect’s six-foot privacy fence to the end of the driveway near the house’s garage and entrance.
Nonetheless, the government claimed these areas that were hidden behind the privacy fence could be viewed from certain angles by the proverbial “man on the street” the investigators claimed their camera emulated. Photos introduced during the hearing showed the end of the driveway could be viewed through “thin gaps” between the boards of the privacy fence, as well as from exterior stairways of nearby apartments. The court doesn’t think much of these hypotheticals.
We are unpersuaded by the People’s arguments that the area of Tafoya’s driveway behind his privacy fence hypothetically could be seen by a next-door neighbor peering through a small gap in the privacy fence or by the adjacent apartment dweller on a second-story private outdoor stairway (or, for that matter, by someone in a helicopter, or by someone looking through the camera on a drone).
This argument ignores the improbability that a neighbor would peer through a gap in a privacy fence or stand on his or her outdoor stairway for three months at a time. And helicopters and publicly available drones do not remain in flight for three months at a time. Crediting the People’s argument would mean there is no temporal cap on how many months or years the police could have continued the video surveillance of Tafoya’s property.
And for all the concerns about how much long-term surveillance via cell site location data tells the government about their surveillance targets, the court reminds everyone pointing an unblinking eye at someone’s home for weeks at a time is just as invasive. It quotes from a South Dakota Supreme Court opinion:
[t]he information gathered through the use of targeted, long-term video surveillance will necessarily include a mosaic of intimate details of the person’s private life and associations. At a minimum, it could reveal who enters and exits the home, the time of their arrival and departure, the license plates of their cars, the activities of the occupant’s children and friends entering the home, information gleaned from items brought into the home revealing where the occupant shops, how garbage is removed, what service providers are contracted, etc.
[L]ong-term video surveillance of the home will generate “a wealth of detail about [the home occupant’s] familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.” The recordings could be stored indefinitely and used at will by the State to prosecute a criminal case or investigate an occupant or a visitor.
The evidence — which apparently includes a large amount of drugs — is suppressed and the conviction overturned. The government gets another chance to prosecute but its case appears to rest largely on the surveillance recordings the court says it can no longer use.