Commonwealth v. Nelson Mora, SJC-12890 (August 6, 2020).

In investigating a drug distribution network, Massachusetts police installed video cameras on telephone and electric poles (“pole cameras”), some of which faced the homes of alleged drug distributors. 

Evidence from the video cameras, as well as other evidence, resulted in indictments.  Several defendants moved to suppress the pole camera evidence and the fruits thereof, arguing that evidence garnered in this way violated Article 14 of the Massachusetts Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  

On interlocutory appeal from denial of defendants’ motion to suppress, the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts concluded that protracted warrantless video surveillance violated the state constitution.  Having done so, the court declined to address the U.S. Constitutional issues.  

The court remanded the case to permit the trial court to determine whether probable cause supported the installation of the cameras surveilling the personal residences from the outset.

How it happened.  A confidential informant identified defendant Mora as a drug dealer. After a staged purchase of drugs, cameras were installed outside Moran’s and another defendant’s houses.  The cameras provided a view of the front of the house as well as the sidewalk and the adjacent street.  The cameras recorded continuously — for five months in Mora’s case –without audio and were static except for the capacity to zoom in and out.  The interior of homes could not be seen and no particular features permitted nighttime surveillance.  

The trial court found the surveillance unexceptional.  The trial judge denied defendants’ motions to suppress because the cameras captured only information in plain public view.  The cameras aimed at a fixed point and were not capable of capturing detailed activities and associations.  Observation of matters on public display traditionally does not carry a reasonable expectation of privacy and does not require a warrant.  The court concluded that pole cameras did no more than that.  

In de novo review of the central question whether the pole cameras’ surveillance were unconstitutional warrantless searches, the Supreme Judicial Court asked first whether there was a search.  A search may be unconstitutional if it intrudes upon an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, but no such expectation is ordinarily found where the observation is of matters in plain view of the publix. 

Pole cameras have been in use for several decades.  Other courts’ reviews have yielded mixed results. 

The court found it unnecessary to address federal issues and noted that the Massachusetts Constitution may afford more protections than the U.S. Constitution.  The court framed the central question is whether a defendant had a reasonable subjective expectation of privacy and whether society would recognize the expectation as unreasonable.  

The appellate court recognized that defendants had subjective expectations that their homes would not be subjected to extended surveillance.  There was no need to create barriers around the property to obtain constitutional protection.  Such a requirement would make the constitutional resource dependant, and an impermissible result, as the home is a castle no matter how humble.  (Slip Op. at 14.)

What society may recognize as objectively reasonable is a large and difficult question, the court opined, but noted that case law has recognized that extended surveillance without probable cause and judicial supervision is problematic.

Location, location, location…and duration. The duration and location of surveillance matters, the court found, making it possible to extend protection to protracted video recording of houses but not to public places, particularly as surveillance cameras are abundant there and in commercial venues.

The Founders’ Prescience. Protecting the home from government intrusion is the reason that federal and state constitutions were drafted as they were.  The promise that the sanctity of the home will not be needlessly or recklessly breached is historically significant, and the framers may be thanked for a prescience that precludes a contemporary Orwellian state.  (Slip. Op. at 22.)

The argument that pole cameras outside the home catch no more than a police officer might see must faile, as the very inexhaustibility of the machines negates comparison.

As heretofore it has not been thought necessary to obtain a warrant to conduct pole camera surveillance, the Supreme Judicial Court decided that remand to determine whether propane cause for use of the cameras existed at the time of installation, which might be established by review of existing evidence submitted in support of warrants that were obtained or by supplementary evidence if needed.  If probable cause existed for installation of all of the cameras, suppression of evidence must be denied, but if probable cause did not exist, suppression as to the cameras surveilling the homes only may be allowed. 

Commonwealth v. Mora, SJC 12890 (August 6 2020)

  

 

 

 

 

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