Court Says 10 Weeks Of Warrantless Surveillance Is Perfectly Constitutional

How long can the government surveill your property without a warrant? According to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, pretty much indefinitely.

Rocky Houston appeals his conviction of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). At trial, the primary evidence against Houston was video footage of his possessing firearms at his and his brother’s rural Tennessee farm. The footage was recorded over the course of ten weeks by a camera installed on top of a public utility pole approximately 200 yards away. Although this ten-week surveillance was conducted without a warrant, the use of the pole camera did not violate Houston’s reasonable expectations of privacy because the camera recorded the same view of the farm as that enjoyed by passersby on public roads.

It's hard to fault the logic of this conclusion, even if it does seem the ATF's surveillance bumped up against the edges of the Fourth Amendment. What happened in aggregate was not a violation because no individual aspect of it crosses over the "expectation of privacy" line. An ATF agent with a camera filming from across the road wouldn't have violated Houston's privacy, even if the agent could only do so for a single 8-hour shift. 

Ten weeks of surveillance is nothing more than 10 weeks of back-to-back, round-the-clock 8-hour shifts. US courts have often stated that rights violations cannot spring into existence on their own. The aggregate is a sum of smaller parts and if none of the "smaller parts" are a violation of Fourth Amendment rights, then 1,680 hours of surveillance by camera is no different than 8 hours of surveillance by an agent. Houston's property could be viewed from the road. The camera on the light pole may have been a bit higher than eye level, but it provided agents with nothing that could not have been observed by the naked eye at that height. 

We've seen this same discussion in disputes over automatic license plate readers. Vigilant -- a producer of said cameras -- argued it had a First Amendment right to photograph license plates on vehicles travelling public roads. The courts certainly wouldn't deny an individual the right to do the same as there's no expectation of privacy afforded to vehicles on public roads. If a person can take a few hundred license plate pictures a day, then Vigilant is well within its rights to take millions of pictures a day, all over the country. 
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