U.S. Court Rules Warrantless Video Surveillance is OK

Latest ruling based on 1984 Supreme Court case
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A federal court in Wisconsin has ruled in favor of police use of surveillance cameras without a warrant to monitor private property that is secluded—but open—for criminal activity.

On Oct. 30, 2012, U.S. District Judge William Griesbach of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin has ruled in favor of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) use of multiple “covert digital surveillance cameras” in an effort to obtain evidence of marijuana cultivation on private property that is secluded.

According to the court, DEA agents installed the cameras on private property without permission or a warrant. The cameras were used to observe property owned by Marco Magana of Green Bay, Wis., who, along with Manuel Mendoza, is charged with federal drug crimes. The DEA charges the men were growing more that 1,000 marijuana plants on the 22-acre heavily wooded property.
Court documents say the warrantless video surveillance began on July 12, 2012, and a warrant allowing the installation of the video cameras was issued by U.S. Magistrate Judge James Sickel three days later on July 15.
As a result of the three day delay in a warrant being issued, Magana and Mendoza sought to have the video evidence suppressed saying the DEA violated the Fourth Amendment—which prohibits unreasonable searches and requires that warrants describe the place that is being searched—to obtain the footage. Magana says, “no trespassing” signs were posted throughout the property and the area was secured by a locked gate.
However, on Oct. 9, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Callahan made a recommendation in the case against Magana and Mendoza saying the DEA’s warrantless video surveillance did not violate the Fourth Amendment. In his recommendation, Callahan wrote, “The Supreme Court has upheld the use of technology as a substitute for ordinary police surveillance.” Callahan based his recommendation on the 1984 Supreme Court case Oliver v. United States (No. 82-15). In that case, the Supreme Court ruled police do not need a warrant to search “open fields” because those areas are not protected by the Fourth Amendment.
Griesbach followed Callahan’s recommendation.
It is not yet known if Magana and Mendoza will appeal Griesbach’s ruling. In addition, a jury trial in the case has been scheduled for Jan. 22, 2013, and if convicted, Magana and Mendoza could be sentenced to from 10 years to life imprison, and fined up to $10 million.

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