Noticed anything funny attached to the top of a light pole in your neighborhood lately? It could be a police surveillance camera. A judge recently threw out surveillance evidence in a case against a suspected drug dealer in Washington because police officers placed a webcam on utility pole outside his house without a warrant.
The camera was about 100 yards from Leonel Vargas' front door. Police began watching the man because they thought he was dealing drugs and could have been in the country illegally. The camera caught the suspect shooting a gun for target practice and used that as justification to search his house.
A search found four weapons and five grams of methamphetamine—evidence the judge tossed out on Monday.
Sounds like an open and shut case, right? Not so fast. The Justice Department is arguing that it didn't violate the Fourth Amendment because it was recording from public space. But, the judge hearing the case disagreed.
U.S. District Judge Edward Shea said that law enforcement only has the right to record surveillance of a person's front yard after it has received a warrant from a judge. Because of this, he threw out the surveillance and any evidence obtained from the search that followed.
This reasonable expectation of privacy prohibits the warrantless, continuous, and covert recording of Mr. Vargas’ front yard for six weeks. Mr. Vargas’ motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the video feed is granted.
All of my loyal readers know that I am a big supporter of our brave law enforcement officers. They put their lives on the line every day to keep the rest of us safe. But, in the information age, officers need to make sure that they're following the law when recording suspects so that they don't violate our privacy or possibly give criminals a chance to go free.
This news comes at a time when many Americans are worried about intrusive surveillance by law enforcement. Just last month, I told you about how U.S. Marshals have used planes to collect cellphone data.