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On The Front Lines

Sixth Circuit Affirms That Police Can Spy on Citizens' Front Doors for 10 Weeks Without a Warrant Using Public Surveillance Cameras

Cincinnati, Ohio— In a ruling handed down in United States v. Rocky Joe Houston, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed that police can spy on Americans’ front doors for ten weeks without a warrant using a camera mounted to a public utility pole. In rebutting the concern that such surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against warrantless searches, Circuit Judge John M. Rogers noted, “Although this ten-week surveillance was conducted without a warrant, the use of the pole camera did not violate Houston’s reasonable expectations of privacy because the camera recorded the same view of the farm as that enjoyed by passersby on public roads…the Fourth Amendment does not punish law enforcement for using technology to more efficiently conduct their investigations.”

“This ruling by the Sixth Circuit confirms the fears that we voiced in the wake of United States v. Jones—namely, that the arsenal of surveillance technologies now available to law enforcement do not require government officials to engage in a physical trespass of one’s property in order to engage in a search,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Obviously, the new era of technology, one that was completely unimaginable to the men who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, requires an updated legal code to enshrine the right to privacy. New technologies which enable the radical expansion of police surveillance operations require correspondingly robust legal frameworks in order to maintain the scope of freedom from authoritarian oversight envisioned by the Framers.”

The facts according to the court are as follows: In 2012, the Sheriff’s Department informed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”) that Rocky Houston was a convicted felon in open possession of firearms at his residence. Houston and his brother Leon Houston reside on a family farm which is comprised of three adjacent properties. Billboards and hand-painted signs critical of government officials hang approximately twenty yards off the road. The farm is not enclosed by fencing or other artificial barriers. ATF agents first attempted to conduct drive-by surveillance of the farm. However, they were unable to observe for any length of time because their vehicles “[stuck] out like a sore thumb.”

As a result, on October 9, 2012, at the direction of the ATF and without a warrant, the utility company installed a surveillance camera on a public utility pole located roughly 200 yards from Leon’s trailer. The camera broadcasted its recordings to ATF agents. The camera could move left and right and had a zoom function. The ATF agents trained the camera primarily on Leon’s trailer and a nearby barn. At trial, an ATF agent testified that the view that the camera captured was identical to what the agents would have observed if they had driven down the public roads surrounding the farm.

Warrantless monitoring occurred for ten weeks, from October 10, 2012, until December 19, 2012. On December 19, 2012, a Sixth Circuit ruling expressing “some misgivings” about the constitutionality of long-term warrantless surveillance of an individual’s backyard via a pole camera prompted the ATF to obtain a warrant for the continued use of the pole camera. On January 11, 2013, ATF agents arrested Houston when he was away from the farm. No firearms were found on his person. On that same day, agents executed search warrants for the three residences at the farm and seized 25 firearms attributable to Houston and his brother.


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