“Big Brother is Watching You.”
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals would make the Stasi proud. Judge John Rogers sees no invasion of privacy if law enforcement monitors your home without a warrant using a camera mounted on a public utility pole.
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.”
To be sure, Houston is a piece of work, as is his brother, Leon. Accused of murdering a deputy and ride-along several years ago, both were eventually found not guilty. The brothers went through several trials. They even posted photos of the victims on Facebook. They have been battling Roane County, TN for years, and seem to be poster children for The Homespun Paranoia Group.
The judgment against Houston is problematic because the ruling can be applied to people who aren’t paranoid, who aren’t in conflict with the government, nor who have not been implicated in the killing of a law enforcement officer or ride-along.
Attorney John Whitehead summarizes:
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.
But the judge said specifically:
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
Are we for real here? Show me the person who can set up outside your front door for ten consecutive weeks filming your every move. A passerby on a public road is clearly not equal to government surveillance.
Writing at Gizmodo, Katharine Trendacosta:
The counter argument is that a human being couldn’t possibly record everything that happened for ten weeks without a break. But, according to the Sixth Circuit, this doesn’t violate the expectation of privacy because “it is only the possibility that a member of the public may observe activity from a public vantage point-not the actual practicability of law enforcement’s doing so without technology” that matters. The fact that the ATF could have gotten the same information without using a camera-a fact that comes from the testimony of an ATF agent-means that it’s okay that they did use a camera.
All of which is a perfectly valid ruling, given the existing framework of the Fourth Amendment. What it reveals is that technology can change not only the expectation of privacy-i.e. that we should assume we are under surveillance at all times in public spaces-but also how easily law enforcement can take advantage of public spaces.
Not convinced? Look at the crowd shot on this link. Zoom in. Keep zooming.
You are looking at a crowd of a reported 700,000 people. Think you can hide in a crowd? Think again. Zoom in on a window. Realize the inevitable invasions of privacy, the unwarranted surveillance. This particular camera is in Canada.
The government has the freedom to watch and record you moments outside your home without your knowledge, and without a warrant. That is the definition of a “surveillance society.”
Read the full court decision.
Read the full release at Rutherford Institute.
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