ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Settle Pole Surveillance Dispute with Concerns About Fourth Amendment Protections

By Daniella Espinoza 

WASHINGTON, DCIn the ongoing battle against fair usage of technology and how it affects privacy, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts have begun the pursuit against long-term police usage of surveillance.

Along with law firms Elkins, Auer, Rudof & Schiff  as well as Thompson and Thompson PC, the ACLU groups filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to reexamine the usage of surveillance cameras targeted at a person’s home—they questioned whether such use was considered a Fourth Amendment search.

The petition comes within the Moore v. United States criminal case where police installed a hidden camera on a nearby pole to monitor a Massachusetts home, without any warrant, and monitored the home for eight months.

Even after a federal district court held the surveillance was a Fourth Amendment search requiring a warrant, the case was taken to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit as case en banc, so the case was heard by an entire court of judges rather than just one.

While in the First Circuit, the case deadlocked on the matter of long-term surveillance, leaving the question of it becoming increasingly divided.

Thus, the new petition calls for the Supreme Court to set clear rules that address privacy concerns against “invasive surveillance of [Americans] and their activities and associations at their homes.”

Nathan Freed Wessler, the deputy director of ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project highlights common fears, argues, “This technology allows police to secretly watch and record highly invasive details of our private lives, from when we leave and return home, to what we carry with us when we do, to who visits us, and when.”

Wessler added, “Without a warrant requirement, nothing stops police from using these small, cheap cameras to watch anyone’s — or everyone’s — homes without limit.”

Moreover, the ACLU said, because surveillance and such devices have continued to saturate current markets, accessibility to them has become easier in recent years.

Matthew Segal, the legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts stated, “As the cost of such surveillance falls and its use by law enforcement expands, the need to resolve whether the Fourth Amendment poses any constraint has become all the more urgent.”

According to attorney Linda Thompson who represented Daphne Moore in her trial, the case of long-term surveillance is much more than the months-long secret monitoring of people.

Building on existing distrust for law enforcement using seemingly unfettered authority to catch citizens, Thompson notes that “until the Supreme Court acts, people across the country will remain vulnerable to law enforcement’s claim of unfettered authority” and because it can happen to “a community pillar — a lawyer, respected judicial clerk, devoted church member, and a grandmother raising her grandkids,” it can happen to anyone.

Thompson’s fears arise because law enforcement uses such surveillance to “cherry-pick images from months of unceasing surveillance in an effort to support unwarranted criminal charges against an innocent person.”

Before this case, the Supreme Court had already issued a landmark ruling in Carpenter v. United States, holding that before accessing even a days’ worth of a person’s cell-phone location data, government officials must gain a warrant if the procedure is to be considered legal.

Building on such rulings, the ACLU suggests long-term surveillance, albeit done on a pole, is just as invasive as cell-phone tracking (if not more so) over time.

Because the issue has caused confusion on how to apply the Carpenter decision in lower courts, the plaintiffs insist Supreme Court decisions are needed in order to go forward.

Now, as they fight in the highest American court, the ACLU is urging the Supreme Court to step in and “guarantee the Fourth Amendment’s critical protections against unfettered or suspicionless surveillance in a digital age.”

About The Author

Daniella is a fourth year transfer student at UC Berkeley pursuing degrees in both Political Science and Chicano studies. Before Berkeley, Daniella found her passion exploring the complexities of the criminal justice system and how this intersects with the Chicano community. After graduation, she plans to find work in the public sector where she hopes to make meaningful change in her community.

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