Unites States v. Magana
By Casey Holzapfel – Edited by Geng Chen
United States v. Magana, No. 12-CR-154 (E.D. Wis. Oct. 29, 2012)
United States v. Mendoza, No. 12-CR-154 (WCG/WEC) (E.D. Wis. Oct. 9, 2012)
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin ruled that Wisconsin law enforcement officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they installed hidden surveillance cameras on private property without a warrant. Judge William Griesbach accepted the recommendation of Magistrate Judge William Callahan to deny the defendants’ requests to suppress evidence obtained through the use of hidden cameras. Magana, slip op. at 1.
The court held that the installation of surveillance equipment did not violate the Fourth Amendment because it was placed outside the “curtilage”—the land surrounding the house where private activities are expected to take place. Mendoza, slip op. at 3–4.
Ars Technica explains the consequences of allowing technology as a substitute for police surveillance. CNET highlights other privacy issues involving the use of technology advances in law enforcement.
On July 12, 2012, law enforcement officers entered a private property and observed marijuana plants growing in a “small clearing” outside the curtilage. Id. at 2. The officers installed hidden cameras in an open field and, several days later, obtained a warrant authorizing the use of surveillance cameras. Id. at 3. Defendants Manuel Mendoza and Marco Magana claim to appear in the camera footage and argue that the placement of the surveillance cameras was an unconstitutional search because the officers did not have “prior judicial authorization” to do so. See id. The relevant part of the Fourth Amendment provides that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Id. (quoting U.S. Const. amend. IV).
The Supreme Court has held that while curtilage is an “effect” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, open fields are not. Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 176 (1984). Therefore, even if a search is considered a trespass under common law, the Fourth Amendment does not protect a search of an open field. Mendoza, slip op. at 3–4 (citing Oliver, 466 U.S. at 183). Here, the court found that cameras were only filming activities within the open field and therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 4.
The defendants also argued that the alleged “No Trespassing” signs and the wooded character of the property led to a subjective expectation of privacy. Id. The court rejected this argument, adopting the reasoning of Oliver that a case-by-case approach would create too many difficulties for police officers, forcing them to evaluate the expectation of privacy that the individual features of each property created. Id.
The Supreme Court has also held that law enforcement officers may substitute technology for ordinary police surveillance. See United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276, 282 (1983). Under this rule, the district court found that the law enforcement officers were allowed to install the cameras because it would have been legal for the officers themselves to stake out the area. Mendoza, slip op. at 4.
As Ars Technica notes, allowing police officers to substitute technology for manual police work may not be an equal trade-off. Hidden surveillance cameras increase the surveillance power of the police by allowing them to install an unlimited number of cameras where needed while directing their manpower toward other issues. It remains to be seen if other courts will also allow this increase in police power or if they will subject police surveillance power to a stricter judicial review.