Supreme Court Allows Law enforcement to Conduct Warrantless Video Surveillance

March 10, 2022 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

Supreme Court Allows Law enforcement to Conduct Warrantless Video Surveillance

Amicus briefs filed by the Institute of Free Speech, the Institute for Justice, the Cato Institute and Rutherford Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the American Islamic Congress and Muslim Public Affairs Council urged the Supreme Court to grant the petition for certiorari in the case of United States v. Tuggle. A petition for certiorari argues that a lower court has incorrectly decided an important question of law and that a higher court should review the case and remedy the mistake to prevent incorrect holdings in similar cases. The Supreme Court ultimately denied this petition. But why? This blog explores what happened in this case to draw such attention, and what may come next as a result of the controversial holding and the Supreme Court’s decision to not interfere.

What Happened?

Federal agencies began investigating Travis Tuggle in 2013 as a suspect in a large methamphetamine ring in Illinois. Law enforcement installed three cameras on utility poles on public property with Tuggle’s home and a shed owned by Tuggle’s coconspirator in view. These cameras recorded 24/7 for eighteen months, allowing officers to “remotely zoom, pan, and tilt the cameras and review the camera footage in real-time or later.” From this surveillance,

Officers tallied over 100 instances of what they suspected were deliveries of methamphetamine to Tuggle’s residence. After these alleged “drops,” different individuals would arrive, enter the home, and purportedly buy methamphetamine. Several witnesses corroborated these activities. Relying heavily on the video evidence, officers secured and executed search warrants on several locations, including Tuggle’s house.

Tuggle was then indicted on two drug charges, and he moved to suppress the surveillance evidence as an impermissible search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied this motion, finding that Tuggle did not have an expectation of privacy in the front of his house, and the long duration of the surveillance was permissible. Tuggle pled guilty under 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)9A) to conspiring to distribute, and possession with the intent to distribute at least 50 grams of methamphetamine and at least 5000 grams of a mixture containing methamphetamine, and 21 U.S.C. 856(a)(1) for maintaining drug-involved premises. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison. He appealed, arguing two main points that exemplified how his unreasonable expectation of privacy had been violated:

  1. Any use of the cameras outside his house placed on the utility pole was an unreasonable search, regardless of how long they were placed there.
  2. Even if the use of the cameras was determined to not be an unreasonable search, the long duration transformed the surveillance into a search.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both of these arguments and affirmed his conviction, stating that the government:

Used commonplace technology, located where officers were lawfully entitled to be, and captured events observable to any ordinary passerby. The government did not invade an expectation of privacy that society would be prepared to accept as reasonable. Accordingly, the isolated use of pole cameras here did not constitute a Fourth Amendment search.

Why is the Holding Problematic?

The question left for the Supreme Court to decide was “whether long-term, continuous, and surreptitious video surveillance of a home and its curtilage constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.” When they declined to take up the issue, many were left wondering if this case created a slippery slope when it comes to Fourth Amendment protections. To read more about the Fourth Amendment and when it is violated, visit our blog post here.

The Seventh Circuit’s opinion acknowledged that the holding in the case brought them “unease” about the implications of surveillance for future cases. They also noted that the extended period of time that Tuggle was surveilled – 18 months, even if permissible, is concerning. Judge Flaum who delivered the opinion identified two distinct challenges brought forth from the holding. First, he recognized the “obvious line-drawing problem” asking, “how much pole camera surveillance is too much?” He then raised the issue that “drawing our own line risks violating Supreme Court precedent and interfering with Congress’s policy-making function.” Judge Flaum also noted that “cutting-edge technologies will eventually and inevitably permeate society. In turn, society’s expectations of privacy will change as citizens increasingly rely on and expect these new technologies.” These new forms of technology may, at some point, “no longer serve as a back-stop preventing the government from using that technology to access massive troves of previously inaccessible private information because doing so will no longer breach society’s newly minted expectations.”

Organizations also voiced their fears through amicus briefs. An amicus brief allows a person or entity who is not a party in the case to offer additional relevant information or arguments related to the issue(s) of the case for the court to consider. The Rutherford Institute and the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, suggesting that “without adequate safeguards in place, there would be no turning back from the kinds of intrusions ‘posed by such expansive, ever-watching surveillance technology capable of revealing intimate details of a person’s life.’” Other briefs included similar fears, such as the brief filed by the Institute for Free Speech, which argued that “left unchecked, the power [of permitted round-the-clock home surveillance] will discourage Americans from engaging in public gatherings and private meetings of all types that could be identified by travel to and from a person’s home, chilling both social and political association and the collective free speech it fosters.”

Only time will tell if the chilling statement within the Seventh Circuit’s opinion, warning that we are steadily approaching a future with a “constellation of ubiquitous public and private cameras accessible to the government that [will] catalog the movements and activities of all Americans” will become reality.

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one believe your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures has been violated, it is imperative you hire a qualified Tallahassee criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have decades of experience and will fight zealously to uphold your rights and explore every applicable defense in your case. Give us a call at (850) 681 – 7777 or send an online message to discuss your legal matter during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

Written by Sarah Kamide

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