EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the letter sent to Platte City Police Chief Carl Mitchell by the chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union regarding the hidden video camera that was installed on private property--without a warrant and without the permission of the property owner in whose tree it was hidden--overlooking the backyard of Stephanie Santos. The original letter is scanned in below the retyped version.
By First Class Mail & E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
November 5, 2012
Carl Mitchell, Chief of Police
Platte City Police Dept.
900 Fourth Street
Platte City, MO 64079
Re: Video Camera Surveillance of Backyard
Our File No.: 12-0005506
Dear Chief Mitchell:
Last Friday, I received a formal complaint from Stephanie Santos, who resides with her family in one half of a duplex at 103 Wallingford Drive, Platte City, Missouri. Ms. Santo's father owns the property and resides in the other half of the duplex. On November 1, Ms. Santos spotted a video camera mounted in a tree in a vacant lot next to her home. That camera was pointed into Ms. Santos's backyard and was directed toward her bedroom window. That backyard is where Ms. Santos's children play and where her family gathers for the enjoyment of their everyday domestic life. On Friday, November 2, Ms.Santos called the Platte City Police Department to complain about the camera, and at about 4:00 p.m. the Department dispatched Officer Wellon to the Santos home. Officer Wellon told Ms. Santos that the Platte City Police Department installed the camera and that the camera was on city property. *Late Saturday morning, November 3, someone removed the camera from the tree.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the home and its immediate environs from unreasonable govermental intrusions and surveillance. See United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294, 301 (1987) (describing the home's "umbrella" of Fourth Amendment protection). "Hidden video surveillance is one of the most intrusive investigative mechanisms available to law enforcement." United States v. Nerber, 222 F3d 597, 603 (9th Cir. 2000). "This type of surveillance provokes an immediate negative visceral reaction: indiscriminate video surveillance raises the spectre of the Orwellian state." United States v. Cuevas-Sanchez, 821 F.2d 248, 25 (5th Cir. 1987). Recently, in a civil suit involving police-ordered video surveillancne of the backyard of a private home, a federal district court granted summary judgment to the home owner, finding that the police-ordered video surveillance violated the Fourth Amendment and rejecting the individual police officers' claims of qualified immunity. Shafer v. City of Boulder, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130421, 2012 WL 4051892 (D. Nev. Sept. 12, 2012).
*In fact, the tree in which the camera was mounted is in a vacant lot that is privately owned by a resident of Jackson County, Missouri.
The Santos's backyard is the place where the family engages in its intimate domestic activities and is thus within the curtilage of the home. Dunn, 480 U.S. at 300, 303 (broadly defining intimate activities to include "domestic life" and holding that an area is protected curtilage of it "harbors the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man's home and the privacies of life" (internal quotation marks omitted)). Thus, the Police Department's act of installing a video camera that overlooked the Santos's backyard, focused on a bedroom window, and recorded the family's domestic life violated the Fourth Amendment.
Although the Santos family is glad that the Police Department removed the camera on Saturday, November 3, 2012, the family believes that the City violated its privacy for several days, and the family would like assurances from the Police Department and other City officials that this Orwellian misconduct will not be repeated, that the Police Department and City will adopt policies that will prohibit future video surveillance of privaite homes, and that the City will take other steps to compensate the family for invasion of privacy. Please contact me or have your attorney contact me at your earliest convenience so that we can discuss an appropriate resolution to this unfortunate incident.
Chief Counsel & Legal Director
Direct Dial: (816) 994-3311
cc: Stephanie Santos
Frank Offutt, Mayor (by e-mail only)
Dennis "DJ" Gehrt, City Administrator (by e-mail only)