Warrantless Video Surveillance

By John Honovich, Published Nov 02, 2012, 12:00am EDT

"Court OKs warrantless use of hidden surveillance cameras" blares a leading technology publication. Many other sites pick this up, declaring [link no longer available], "Wave Goodbye to your Civil Liberties!"

So has Big Brother arrived? No. The coverage sensationalizes and deeply misrepresents US law.

While a district court judge did approve a warrantless use of hidden video surveillance, it is an extremely uncommon scenario grounded on an established legal principle.

Application and Restriction

In the US, the 4th Amendment regulates and restricts government access:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated... [emphasis added]"

One exception exists - the 'open fields doctrine'. As a court case from 1984 declares, "open fields do not provide the setting for those intimate activities that the Amendment is intended to shelter from government interference or surveillance."

However, the area immediately surrounding a house, called curtilage, is still protected by the 4th amendment and not impacted by any court decision.

The Current Surveillance Case

In the current video surveillance case, the DEA placed cameras inside a 22 acre private property but not next to the dwellings/house. They used these cameras to spot and verify marijuana plants.

The judge approved this use as being in line with previous cases (such as Oliver vs the US) where police officers went on to open fields of private property and found marijuana.

The Impact of this Case

Outside of raising ungrounded fears, this case changes nothing and will have no impact on 99.9% of real world cases as deploying cameras on non rural, non farmland, private property remains illegal under the fourth amendment.

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