Monitoring the Unblinking Mechanical Eye: Unlimited Static Pole Camera Surveillance of Personal Residence Requires Probable Cause and Warrant Under Massachusetts Constitution, State Supreme Court Concludes

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)

  

 

 

 

 

Surveillance Without Surcease: Massachusetts’ Highest Court to Review Constitutionality of Continuous, Warrantless Videorecording of Criminal Defendants’ Houses

Nelson Mora, et al. v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, SJC-12890.  Oral argument scheduled for May 5, 2020.

Related:   Commonwealth v. McCarthy, SJC-12750.  Opinion issued April 16, 2020.


Defendants were arrested as part of an ongoing state effort to interrupt commerce in drugs.  As part of that effort, police installed, without warrants, video cameras in public spaces outside defendants’ houses.  These “poll cameras” permitted uninterrupted video recording of the outside of these houses and were equipped with zoom features to permit closer scrutiny.  

Defendants moved to suppress the video evidence as violative of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 14 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  The Superior Court denied relief, finding that defendants have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the exteriors of their homes, which were plainly visible to the world.

Interlocutory review was sought and granted.

Appellants/Defendants argue that incessant videorecording denies defendants’ constitutionally promised privacy interests, which are not defined with reference to brightline distinctions between exteriors and interiors, but rather with respect to the reasonable expectations of privacy enunciated in Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1969).  Static, unceasing and warrantless mechanical surveillance is a search which intrudes beyond any reasonable bounds of police powers.  

Defendants are supported by several civil rights and technology advocacy entities, who join in characterizing the surveillance in issue as “Orwellian.”

The state stands firm in its view that that which is in plain view is not private, and that even if issues were to be found in these searches, error should be excused on the basis of the police’s good faith.

Just weeks ago the Supreme Judicial Court outlined constitutional parameters of static camera recordings of vehicles permanently placed at the ends of bridges linking the main land of Massachusetts with Cape Cod.   Following an extensive review of the foundational ideas that support the law of searches and privacy, and after concluding that the camera surveillance in issue could be a search, the court found no constitutional violation as the car in question could be seen without technology and any intrusion was of limited duration.   Chief Justice Gant wrote separately in concurrence, suggesting that the course going forward might be better served if authorizations based on reasonable suspicion and subsequent probable cause were obtained in advance of surveillance. 

Appellants/Defendants embrace McCarthy as pointing the way for a decision in their favor.  The state has tradition on its side: many considerations of poll cameras have found their use to be constitutionally innocuous, with only a few courts demanding that this form of surveillance  be cabinned by time limits.

Justlawful’s Observation.  The “in plain sight” argument offered by the state, if woodenly applied, could lead to results that would undermine Katz.  Moreover, the argument that recording shows only what a passerby might see becomes problematic if human rather than mechanical supervision were in issue.  Were a person to stand in observation of a residence without interruption, the homeowner or resident might well feel intruded upon, even if the onlooker could see only the exterior of the home, and might be justified in seeking injunctive relief to cause the behavior to cease.   

Briefs of the Parties

Commonwealth v. Mora – SJC-12890 Appellants’ Brief

Commonwealth v. Mora — Commonwealth’s Brief

Commonwealth v. Mora — Appellants’ Reply Brief

The McCarthy Decision

2020 04 16 Commonwealth v. McCarthy SJC-12750

For those fond of legal history, an 1890 Harvard Law Review article outlining Warren and Brandeis’ Views of Privacy

Warren and Brandeis, _The Right to Privacy_

 

 

 

 

 

 

He Fought the Law and the Law Won: Probable Cause Defeats First Amendment Claim for Retaliatory Arrest

Nieves v. Bartlett, No. 17-1174.  May 28, 2019.


Bartlett was arrested at a ‘raucous’ Arctic Man sports gathering following his initial refusal to speak with officers and subsequent discussion about an underage attendee. He was perceived by police to be aggressive. Bartlett sued the police under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, claiming that the arrest was in retaliation for his exercise of First Amendment rights.

The Court noted that the question whether probable cause precludes retaliation claims in official policy cases has been left open.  Redress for deprivation of First Amendment rights may be sought if no non-retaliatory basis for official action exists. The critical question is one of “but-for” causation.  No action may proceed unless retaliation has governed any adverse action.

A retaliatory motive will not defeat official action if the official action would have occurred without the retaliatory motive.  Retaliatory arrest claims fail if no probable cause for arrest is shown. A defendant can success only if he or she can show arrest would follow even in the absence of probable cause.

The “no probable cause” rule will not preclude action where a claimant can show that others who were not engaged in protected speech were not arrested. If a vocal critic of police is arrested for jaywalking but others not engaged in protected speech are not arrested, a case can proceed.

In this case, the officer who observed Bartlett’s verbal aggression and body language could conclude a fellow officer was being challenged and perceived the existence of probable cause to arrest.  This defeats the First Amendment retaliation claim.

The Court agreed on the case outcome:  a plaintiff in a retaliatory arrest claim must show not just that retaliatory motive existed but that retaliatory motive caused the arrest.  

The Court was far from agreement on the finer points of its rule.  

Justice Thomas wrote separately to express wariness of the creation of an exception to the “no probable cause” rule, finding this holding to be without precedent in First Amendment jurisprudence.

Justice Gorsuch wrote to express concern that an “exuberant” criminal justice system would permit almost anyone to be arrested for something.  Deference to expansion of extensive state power would inhibit the exercise of constitutionally protected speech. In language certain to be quoted, he wrote:  “If the state could use these (expansive)laws not for their intended purposes but to silence those who voice unpopular ideas, little would be left of our First Amendment liberties, and little would separate us from the tyrannies of the past or the malignant fiefdoms of our own age.”

If probable cause cannot by itself defeat a First Amendment claim, and if there is no such requirement in the case law, then adding such a “no probable cause” requirement is a matter better suited for the legislature.  

To borrow from Fourth Amendment wrongful arrest claims to add requirements to first Amendment retaliation claims wanders too far.  Even if “arrest” is a common factor in both instances, Fourth and First Amendment protections are materially distinct.

Where the absence of probable cause is not an absolute requirement for a retaliation claim nor its presence a guarantor of defeat, probable cause is not irrelevant and may be important to establishing causation.  Determinations such as the Court has made in this case should await a more elaborately developed record and presentation.

Justice Ginsburg has dissented in part, noting that the absence of arrest authority can interfere with expression of speech and press rights. The breath of the majority ruling requesting establishment of lack of probable cause makes only baseless arrests actionable, thereby creating opportunities to abuse the exercise of protected rights.  

Justice Ginsburg would require that civil plaintiffs demonstrate unconstitutional animus as a motivating factor in arrest actions. Defendants may show that any resulting adverse action would have been taken without retaliation. The case before the court is not the proper cause to use to enlarge the potential for individuals and the press to be subjected to polices suppression.

Justice Sotomayor has observed that the Court has correctly determined that probable cause alone will not always defeat a First Amendment claim, but criticizes the needless annunciation of a rule which would allow probable cause to defeat retaliation claims unless others were not treated similarly. There is no need to separate First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims from other First Amendment Retaliation claims. There is no basis for the Court’s “mix and match” approach to constitutional law. The majority has determined, without substantial reason, that the law will benefit more from using comparators as evidence of motivations than it will from other forms of proof.  

Justice Sotomayor expressed fear that those who are more easily the objects of police scrutiny — citizen journalists, perhaps — will suffer arrest in the exercise of protected rights. Moreover, obscuring or defining away the role of statements and motivations further opens the door to abuse.

17-1174 Nieves v. Bartlett (05_28_2019)

Ordinance Compelling AirBnB and HomeAway to Produce Business Records Each Month Preliminarily Enjoined as Violative of the Fourth Amendment, Southern District of New York Concludes

AirBnB, Inc. v. City of New York, No. 18-7712; HomeAway, Inc.  v. City of New York, No. 18-7742 (S.D.N.Y.) January 3, 2019.


The City of New York has enacted measures requiring online rental booking services to turn over their business records each month, a measure intended to limit the proliferation of short-term rentals.  The services have successfully sought preliminary injunctive relief on Fourth Amendment grounds.

No physical entry on the online booking providers’ premises is involved in the contemplated municipal demand for monthly records.  Nonetheless, the court found, the Fourth Amendment may be implicated without such a physical intrusion. Moreover, the federal court found, that the source of the intrusion lies within a municipal ordinance rather than an agent of the state does not remove the providers’ Fourth Amendment protections.  The critical issue is the intrusion upon the providers’ expectations of privacy.

The court declined to reach the booking services’ argument that the ordinance compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment, as the Fourth Amendment issue was perceived to be sufficient to support issuance of a preliminary injunction.

The case is one of a series of attempts to impose regulations sufficient to dissuade further proliferation of short-term rentals of properties through entities such as AirBnB and HomeAway.  Whether the plaintiffs will prevail in the long run remains to be seen For the moment, however, it is of note that the court was not hesitant in reading the Fourth Amendment generously and in keeping with emerging concepts of telecommunications and online privacy considerations, a position which may work to the betterment of privacy interests online for all.  

Equally of note is the notion of regulatory measures gathering business information as a substitute for zoning or other more traditional property rights enforcement devices.  Where physical boundaries are ceding their predominance to online invisible geography, such laws are worthy of attention, and to some, are cause for concern.

AirBnB v. City of New York (S.D,N,Y, 2019)

Getting to Know John Doe: Federal District Court in Connecticut Permits Pre-Discovery Conference Subpoena to Internet Service Provider to Obtain Disclosure of Alleged Infringer’s Name and Address

Malibu Media, LLC v. Doe, No. 18-CV-1510 (D. Conn.) November 2, 2018.


The United States District Court in Connecticut has granted Malibu Media’s request to subpoena an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to obtain disclosure of the name of an individual alleged to have infringed on Malibu Media’s copyright to films by downloading and distributing the films without authorization. Investigation identified use of an ISP address and a distribution program directly correlated in time and date to the infringing activity.  A subpoena was sought to compel the ISP provider to disclose the identity of the ISP address holder, without which Malibu Media would be without a means to protect its intellectual property interests.

The court noted that an alleged infringer cannot interpose the First Amendment right to anonymous speech to defeat the copyright owner’s legitimate interest in protecting his property.  Neither can an internet user complain of Fourth Amendment violations where he has voluntarily provided information to an ISP. Nonetheless, the court observed, as an infringer may find settlement preferable to public disclosure of alleged involvement in unlawful distribution of copyrighted pornography, the court cautioned Malibu Media that any information about the alleged infringer it might obtain could be used only for purposes of the case before the court.  Moreover, the subpoenaed ISP must in turn notify its subscriber of the subpoena, who would be permitted to move to quash the subpoena or to request to litigate the subpoena anonymously.

Malibu Media, LLC v. Doe (D. Conn., 2018)

Every Step You Take, Every Move You Make: Probationer Challenges Massachusetts’ Universal GPS Monitoring Mandate

Commonwealth v. Feliz, SJC No. 12545. Oral Argument September 5, 2018.


What law is in issue? In Massachusetts, any person convicted of certain enumerated sexual offenses must, as a condition of probation, wear a GPS monitor at all times.  Mass. Gen. Laws c. 265, § 47.

Why was this appeal filed?  In 2016, appellant Feliz pled guilty to possession and dissemination of child pornography.  Feliz challenges the statute mandating GPS monitoring as an ongoing unlawful search in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article XIV of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Feliz further submits that the statute serves no rehabilitative function. The inflexible mandate permits no individualized assessment of an offender’s risk. Additionally, the GPS equipment fails repeatedly, threatening his livelihood and inducing chronic anxiety.

What does Feliz seek? On appeal, Feliz objects not to the use of GPS but to its universal use, and seeks a ruling that the mandatory requirement is unsupportable where applied without exception or discretion.  Feliz wants courts to be able to waive the mandatory use of GPS for non-contact offenses where a judge determines that the risk of re-offense does not indicate GPS is necessary.

What was said at trial? Evidence was adduced at trial from experts and a probation officer that GPS monitors had no bearing on recidivism.  The trial judge, however, as of the view that the GPS monitoring itself was the cause of any reduction in recidivism.

Is GPS Monitoring a problem?  Feliz argues that because the attachment of a device to the body is a search, the state must show the search to be lawful, which requires weighing the intrusion against the government interests it promotes. The Supreme Court has recognized that GPS monitoring may be evaluated under the totality of the circumstances of its use.  Massachusetts’ constitution preclude the use of blanket threats of warrantless searches in probation. If the threat of blanket searches is not permissible, it follows that the actuality of blanket searches cannot survive constitutional scrutiny.

Diminished privacy is not extinguished privacy.  Universal GPS monitoring without considering individual needs cannot be said to contribute to rehabilitation, Feliz asserts.  Even if privacy interests are reduced on probation, they are not extinguished, even in the face of registration requirements. The GPS systems compromises different interests: the bodily integrity and location information of a person.  

The Social Freight of the Symbol.  Multiple failures of GPS devices not only impair the integrity of the wearer’s person, they also function as modern scarlet letters, enhancing stigma.

The Durable Information Warehouse.  The severity of the state’s creation of a repository of location information, extending to the home, cannot be sidestepped by asserting that the actual use of the information will not be as broad.  Feliz asserts that this is information gathering is particularly where the potential to access the location information endures, permitting the state to “time travel” through records, a circumstance raising the concerns of the Supreme Court in Carpenter v. United States, No. 16-402 (June 22, 2018).

Warrants Issue Without Judicial Review.  Feliz observes that the warrants that may issue where GPS monitoring indicates require no judicial intervention.  They may be issued on a probation officer’s say so, further eroding any remaining protections of a probationer’s interests.

A Measure Must be as Reasonable as it is Rational. That a measure may be rational does not make it reasonable, particularly as due process and search analyses are not the same.  Rational basis review proceeds from presumptive constitutionality, where warrantless searches proceed from presumptive unconstitutionality. The state must prove the need for such searches.  Judicial evaluation of searches need not defer to the legislature.

Of Course Children Must be Protected:  Will Universal GPS Montoring Accomplish this Goal? While the protection of children is a state interest of the highest order, the state has no evidence indicating that universal monitoring of non-contact offenders, without individual assessments of risk, serves that end.  Feliz’ monitor is incapable of triggering an alert if Feliz enters an area where an offense might occur. Moreover, special needs, such as avoiding drunk driving fatalities, that might justify heightened intrusiveness, are not present.

The State Has A Different Perspective

The State’s Interest in Inhibiting Crime.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts submits that sex offenders have limited privacy interests and that GPS monitoring is reasonable and supports the state’s goal of protecting children.  

The GPS Information Gathered Effectively Serves the State’s Goal. The Commonwealth quotes extensively from the trial judge who observed that while it is true that the GPS system could not issue an alert if Feliz entered a prohibited school zone, information could be gleaned after the fact to determine whether he had been near the site of a crime.  The trial court noted that recidivism among sex offenders is lower than that of other criminals, and may be lower still for internet offenders. If antisocial traits are present, however, the potential to commit a contact offense is greater. Moreover, the attraction to children present in child pornography offenders would logically indicate a greater likelihood of a contact offense.  

What Little Is Known.  Empirical evidence is not extensive, but some studies indicate that GPS monitoring inhibits recidivism. The very knowledge that data is being gathered may be inhibiting, one expert has observed.  Moreover, because internet addresses include location information, the correlation of internet addresses with GPS location information may promote deterrence.  

Searches and Suspicions and Diminished Privacy Expectations. The Commonwealth distinguishes the cases relied on by Feliz by noting that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has permitted searches of probationers’ homes based on reasonable suspicion rather than probable cause.  The Fourth Amendment protection accorded the home exceeds that attaching to location, which is low to virtually non-extant for probationers on parole.

An Indelicate Balance. The intrusion upon an offender’s person is minor when compared to the gravity of sex offenses against children.  Offenders’ expectations of privacy are not the same as those who have not committed crimes. The very fact of being on probation limits privacy expectations in location information.

Rehabilitation is Fostered by Universal Electronic Monitoring.  GPS monitoring can be seen as integral to rehabilitative goals.  The need for child safety makes application of the special needs doctrine apt, for the search involved in GPS monitoring is specific.  The inhibitory impact of an offender’s’ knowledge that information is being monitored serves the rehabilitative goal of impeding re-offending.  This purpose is not diminished because information is retained: the potential for confirmation evidence serves the public interest in protection from sex offenders.  

Daily Life Goes On, with Minimal Inconveniences.  The severity of any invasion of  a probationer’s privacy through GPS is overstated:  cleanliness and other daily activities may be easily accomplished.  

Among Friends

To aid the Supreme Judicial Court in its review, the Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have jointly submitted an amicus brief urging the court to require individualized assessments in connection with applying or waiving GPS monitoring.  The Commonwealth’s Attorney General, on behalf of the state’s probation services, has submitted an amicus brief which provides the technical details and practices involved in GPS monitoring.

Case Materials:

SJC-12545_01_Appellant_Feliz_Brief

SJC-12545_03_Appellee_Commonwealth_Brief

SJC-12545_09_Amicus_MACDL_Brief

SJC-12545_06_Amicus_MA_Probation_Service_Brief

Oral Argument Webcast:

Suffolk Law Webcasts: SJC_12545