The legal system recently put up another noteworthy roadblock in the fight against criminal activity. The court has once again tightened the cords on the hands of law enforcement. We all understand the importance of the 4th amendment, but the fear mongering by the media has taken its toll. On December 12th of 2014 Judge Edward Shea from the United States Eastern District of Washington dealt another blow to law enforcement by restricting a valuable investigative tool, covert video surveillance systems. Although this does not negate the value of these systems, it does remind us that it is always best practice to seek a warrant when deploying these devices. In United States v. Vargas, Judge Shea ruled that video captured of the suspect engaged in criminal activity was fruit of the poisonous tree because the suspect had an expectation of privacy in his front yard.
In gaining a better understanding of how this actually affects law enforcement around the country, Criminal Deputy Attorney Spencer Walsh explained that Although this Federal District Court case is only controlling for Eastern Washington, it, unfortunately, sets a precedent for defense attorneys all over the US to cite. If the case is appealed to Federal Appeals Court, The Courts decision would be controlling for all of the states in the 9th Circuit (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Washington, Arizona, Montana, Oregon, and Nevada). Ultimately, this case is set to lead the charge to the Supreme Court for a nationwide ruling. In the meantime, best practice dictates that a warrant should be sought when deploying covert video surveillance systems that overlook private property, especially rural homes.
In United States v. Vargas Local law enforcement officers used a long range pole camera to monitor the defendant’s activity in his front yard, in a rural eastern Washington home. The defendant, Lionel Michel Vargas, was a suspected drug dealer, and was believed to be in the country illegally. While under surveillance, officers observed and video recorded Mr. Vargas discharging firearms, which he was unable to lawfully possess. Using the video evidence from the covert surveillance system, law enforcement obtained a search warrant and found four weapons and five grams of methamphetamine. All of which were eventually tossed out by Judge Shea’s ruling.
The prosecution argued that the video feed simply permitted law enforcement to remotely observe what any law enforcement officer could have observed if he passed by Mr. Vargas’s front yard on public gravel access road in front of Mr. Vargas’s home. The defense argued that constant surreptitious video viewing and recording of the activities at the front of his home and yard violated his Forth Amendment Right to be free from unreasonable search.
Judge Shea wrote “…the Constitution permits law enforcement officers to remotely and continuously view and record an individual’s front yard (and the activities and people thereon) through the use of a hidden video camera concealed off of the individuals property BUT ONLY upon obtaining a search warrant from a judge based on a showing of probable cause to believe criminal activity was occurring. The American people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the activities occurring in and around the front yard of their homes particularly where the home is located in a very rural, isolated setting.” A full review of the ruling outlines just how rural the area was, and the judge seams to consider this in depth, but it is hard to say how that could be applied across the board.
For a full review of the ruling you can download THE COURT ORDER.
Slade C. Gurr