A federal judge ruled recently that Wisconsin police officers who placed surveillance cameras on private property without a warrant did not violate suspects’ Fourth Amendment rights. The officers were investigating two men, Manuel Mendoza and Marco Magana, who they suspected of growing weed, and though they eventually obtained a search warrant, they took some incriminating footage of Mendoza and Magana before they did. The two defendants subsequently asked the judge to block any images that were taken before the warrant.
Judge William Griesbach, however, rejected that request. Though the Fourth Amendment protects peoples privacy inside their homes, the court stated that, under Supreme Court precedents, it does not protect auxiliary property, such as the field where cops placed the cameras. A previous ruling allows police to manually surveil open fields on private property, argued the court, and cameras should be no different.
This could have serious ramifications on the way police surveillance is done. As Ars Technica contributor Timothy B. Lee points out, “this illustrates the absurdity of automatically allowing the police to automate any surveillance activities they’re allowed to do manually.” “The police can’t afford to put police officers in the bushes of every suspected marijuana grower,” writes Lee. “But they can afford to install surveillance cameras in every suspect’s back yard. So allowing warrantless camera installation dramatically increases the police’s surveillance powers, which ought to attract stricter judicial scrutiny.”