District Court Approves Warrantless Use of Surveillance Cameras

by Michael P. Lewis on November 2, 2012

In a frightening opinion issued on October 30, 2012, by Chief Judge William Griesbach of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, the court approved the warrantless use of surveillance cameras on private, gated property.

Defendants Manuel Mendoza and Marco Magana of Green Bay, Wisconsin were charged with federal drug crimes after Drug Enforcement Administration agents installed multiple “covert digital surveillance cameras” on the property, in the hopes of filming the illegal growth of marijuana plants.  The DEA agents did not have permission, or a warrant authorizing them, to enter the 22-acre parcel owned by Magana.  The property was gated and bore “no trespassing” signs.

Mendoza and Magana moved to exclude the evidence, contending that it was collected in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.  Relying on a 1984 Supreme Court opinion, Oliver vs. United States, the District Court approved the magistrate judge’s recommendation denying the motion.  In Oliver, the Supreme Court ruled that “open fields” could be searched without warrants because they are not covered by the Fourth Amendment.  Land immediately surrounding a residence, or the “curtilage,” is more protected.  Griesbach’s opinion found that the filmed area was outside the curtilage, and that federal agents therefore did not need a warrant to install the cameras.

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