DEA's Warrantless Use of Hidden Cameras OK: Court

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on November 02, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

To keep tabs on a piece of private property suspected of growing marijuana, the Drug Enforcement Administration set up warrantless hidden cameras.

The cameras did their job and the DEA allegedly found Manuel Mendoza and Marco Magana of Green Bay, Wis. growing over 1000 marijuana plants on Magana's property. But the defendants asked the court to discard evidence obtained from the hidden cameras as a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.

Unfortunately for the two, a court ruled against them on Monday. The decision was that warrantless camera surveillance can be ok in some circumstances.

Technology generally moves faster than the law so courts are often asked to apply existing law to new technologies. The Supreme Court has ruled that warrantless GPS tracking and warrantless thermal imaging are unconstitutional, but so far hasn't ruled on warrantless camera surveillance.

In general, the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from searches and seizures made without appropriate evidence which often includes a warrant.

Before performing a search of a person or their property, police generally have to obtain a warrant. But that requirement doesn't apply to searches of public property. While you have a right to expect privacy in your home and personal property (such as a car), you don't have that right in public spaces.

U.S. District Judge William Griesbach relied on this idea when he ruled that the warrantless hidden cameras were ok under the Constitution, according to CNET.

In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while the 'curtilage' or land around your home is entitled to greater protection than public property, 'open fields' can be searched like public land. Griesbach compared Magana's 22-acre property to one of these 'open fields' when approving the cameras.

But the property wasn't open in the strictest sense, reports UPI. Magana had a locked gate on his property and 'No Trespassing' signs were posted throughout.

The court has ruled but that doesn't mean the case can't be appealed. Given what's at stake, namely the freedom of these men and the limits of government surveillance, there's a good chance this case will continue in a higher court. Give it enough time and it may even trickle up to the Supreme Court.

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