A federal judge on Monday tossed evidence that was gathered by a webcam—turned on for six weeks—that the authorities nailed to a utility pole 100 yards from a suspected drug dealer's rural Washington state house.
The Justice Department contended that the webcam, with pan-and-zoom capabilities that were operated from afar, was no different from a police officer's observation from the public right-of-way.
The government argued (PDF):
The advantage of a police camera to law enforcement is that it saves the time and manpower required to conduct around the clock surveillance. As in this case, law enforcement is authorized to use the pole camera only to record activities that are otherwise open to public view, and not protected by the 4th Amendment.
US District Judge Edward Shea disagreed and ruled (PDF) that a warrant was necessary to spy on Leonel Vargas via a webcam controlled by local police. He said:
After reviewing relevant Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and applying such to the facts here, the Court rules that the Constitution permits law enforcement officers to remotely and continuously view and record an individual’s front yard (and the activities and people thereon) through the use of a hidden video camera concealed off of the individual’s property but only upon obtaining a search warrant from a judge based on a showing of probable cause to believe criminal activity was occurring. The American people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the activities occurring in and around the front yard of their homes particularly where the home is located in a very rural, isolated setting. This reasonable expectation of privacy prohibits the warrantless, continuous, and covert recording of Mr. Vargas’ front yard for six weeks. Mr. Vargas’ motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the video feed is granted.
The webcam showed Vargas, who was believed to be in the country illegally, shooting a weapon for target practice in rural Franklin County. The authorities got a warrant to search the premises because it is unlawful for a person living in the country illegally to possess firearms. A search found four weapons and five grams of methamphetamine—evidence the judge tossed out on Monday.
The judge noted that the webcam surveillance was extensive, too. The detective, Aaron Clem of the Kennewick Police Department, "usually aimed the video camera at Mr. Vargas’ front yard; yet, Detective Clem could also remotely pan and zoom the camera so that he could focus on anything in the front yard, including the front door, items in the open parking structure, vehicles (and open trunks and doors), individuals, and surrounding area. The video camera operated twenty-four hours a day and its feed was saved to an external hard drive connected to Detective Clem’s computer."
Strangely, the judge noted, when the authorities raided the house in May 2013, the camera was panned on nearby sagebrush and not the house.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation lodged papers in support of the defendant.
"... The court was convinced with our arguments that the invasiveness of constant video surveillance pointed continuously at one of the most sensitive and private places—the front of a person's home—triggers constitutional protection," Hanni Fakhoury, an EFF staff attorney, said.
#NaplesPI #NaplesPrivateInvestigator #NaplesDetective #webcam #spying #searchwarrant #privacy