Federal Judge Approves Warrantless Hidden Video Surveillance in Drug Case

A federal district judge in Wisconsin accepted a recommendation by a magistrate judge that use of hidden video surveillance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) without a warrant did not violate the defendants’ Fourth Amendment rights. Two defendants in United States v. Mendoza filed motions to suppress evidence obtained by surveillance cameras installed on property where they allegedly grew marijuana. In denying the motions, the magistrate noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed technology, such as surveillance cameras, to substitute for surveillance by police officers.

A federal grand jury charged Manuel Mendoza and Marco Magana on July 17, 2012 with multiple drug-related counts, including conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. This allegedly occurred on a 22-acre piece of property owned by co-defendant Javier Magana, which reportedly had “No Trespassing” signs placed in several locations. Law enforcement officers had gone onto the property on or about July 12, and observed marijuana plants growing outside of the “curtilage,” the area of a property, other than a residence, generally held to be private. The officers installed surveillance cameras to cover the area where they observed marijuana plants. A magistrate judge signed a warrant authorizing the cameras several days later.

Mendoza and Magana each filed motions to suppress evidence obtained from the video surveillance of the property. They argued that they had a reasonable right to privacy, based on the fact that the gate giving access to the property was locked, the presence of “No Trespassing” signs, and the fact that the property is mostly wooded. The government responded by arguing that the areas covered by the cameras were not subject to Fourth Amendment protection.

Magistrate Judge William Callahan recommended denying the motions to suppress, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170 (1984). While the Fourth Amendment protects “persons, houses, papers, and effects” from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” the Supreme Court held in Oliver that open field are not “effects” within the Fourth Amendment’s meaning. Id. at 176. Referring to this as the “open fields” doctrine, Judge Callahan noted that the Supreme Court recently issued a ruling aligned with Oliver in United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012). The Supreme Court held in that case that the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures only extends to places or items specifically “enumerated in the Fourth Amendment.” Id. at 953.

With regard to specific claims about the use of surveillance cameras, Judge Callahan cited the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983), which held that law enforcement may augment “the sensory faculties bestowed upon them at birth” with additional technology. Id. at 282. The Knotts case involved the use of a radio transmitter placed in a drum of chloroform to trace its movement in a methamphetamine investigation. Judge Callahan drew a parallel between this and the use of surveillance cameras in place of human surveillance.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of Texas defendants, making certain that law enforcement and the courts abide by all the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To learn more about how we can assist you in your legal matter, contact us online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Use of Unmanned Drones by Law Enforcement Raises Fourth Amendment Concerns, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 5, 2012
U.S. Supreme Court Will Consider Case of Police Detention Related to a Search Warrant, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 14, 2012
New Technology Means Electronic Communications Increasingly Monitored in Texas, Nationwide, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 22, 2012

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