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Police Install Camera Focused on Back Yard of Woman's Home

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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November 21, 2012

Recently I wrote about an ACLU of Michigan report that highlighted the problem of police cameras being installed outside of people’s private homes. Last week I learned from my colleague Doug Bonney of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri about an even more egregious incident involving video surveillance of a private home in Missouri. Bonney described the situation to me:

We found out about it from our client Stephanie Santos who was subjected to the surveillance. It happened in Platte City, which is a small city north of Kansas City. The police department went in and installed a wildlife camera in a tree in a privately owned vacant lot right next to her property. And they focused the camera on her home—the back yard of her home, and specifically her bedroom window.

What prompted this apparently was that the city had had issues with our client’s father. The property is a duplex; he lives in one side of the duplex, our client and her family lives in the other side of the duplex. And the city had gone around with the father about feeding wild cats. That was the reason, apparently, they put the camera in the tree—really.

The camera was in the tree for three days in late October, and took pictures of her house from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. It took time-lapse pictures. Our client saw it and called the police about it. They sent out an officer who lied to her and said it was to watch people walking through the woods. The city now admits that was a total lie. But the next day, somebody from the city came and took the camera out.

So I wrote a letter because of the outrageous nature of a city posting a camera to surveil the back yard of somebody’s home. And the city didn’t reply initially to me at all. The city manager did call and apologize to our client. And various city employees came out and talked to our client and her father. They did an investigation. A reporter then sent me a memo the city had drafted, which basically admitted all the facts I alleged in my letter. The city, though, seemed to say the only problem was not having a policy before they installed the camera, and not sending their police officers and their police chief for privacy training.

And that’s where it stood until Thursday night, when I was contacted by a lawyer who was representing the city. He said he had talked to the city, that they would not do this any more, that mayor was very upset, and that the mayor has written an official letter of apology to our client. They faxed that to me Friday—it’s a good letter. It expresses regret and acknowledges to our client that the incident was an “intrusion into the privacy of you and your family.” He wrote, “this action on our part leads to distrust of government at all levels and I am committed to taking steps to rebuild that trust with you and your family.” And the mayor said the city would investigate the mistakes the police department made and was looking at the possibility of disciplinary action against relevant city staff.

It’s hard to conceive of many people who would say “this is something the government should be doing—setting up spy cameras to spy on us in our back yards.” This letter tells me that the city gets that.

Perhaps most important for our purposes is that I told the city’s lawyer that “the city doesn’t really need a policy governing this kind of camera deployment, because the Constitution provides a policy. It’s the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.” And he agreed with that.

Bonney adds, “I’m glad we got a good resolution, but this issue is one that is going to keep popping up.”

Fourth Amendment law is in crisis right now as its application to vast areas of American life has been challenged by government agencies taking advantage of evolving technology. But the privacy of the home remains sacrosanct and in many ways is the clearest, easiest case for constitutional privacy protection, so even given the relative novelty of cheap video surveillance in our society, it’s somewhat surprising that such cases are coming up.