A Wisconsin judge ruled this week that under certain circumstances police have the right to set up hidden surveillance cameras on private property without having a search warrant.
U.S. District Judge William Griesbach said that police on the hunt for two men suspected of growing 30 to 40 marijuana plants in an open field in Green Bay, Wis., were in the clear to set up several "covert digital surveillance cameras" in that field without judicial approval or the property owner's permission, CNET reported.
The judge argued that the secret cameras did not violate the Fourth Amendment -- which protects people and their property from unreasonable search and seizure by authorities -- because neither Manuel Mendoza nor Marco Magana owned or leased the land. Therefore, they could not expect privacy on the property. Plus, the judge said, the Fourth Amendment only extends to a "home and land directly outside of it," according to tech blog Ars Technica.
The property where the cameras were installed is a wooded area distant from homes, with a locked gate and a "no trespassing" sign, which indicated an expectation of privacy, the suspects argued. Griesbach disagreed, saying in his ruling: "Police officers would have to guess before every search whether landowners had erected fences sufficiently high, posted a sufficient number of warning signs, or located contraband in an area sufficiently secluded to establish a right of privacy."
And since it's legal for police to enter private property to collect evidence, it should be legal for them to set up cameras on private property for the same purpose, Griesbach said.
It was only after police recorded evidence in the field that they obtained a search warrant and arrested Mendoza and Magana on charges of federal drug crimes, according to Opposing Views. The suspects' lawyers had asked the judge to throw out the videos as evidence.
Mendoza and Magana face possible life sentences in prison and up to $10 million in fines. They are expected to stand trial in January.
Though police have been cleared for their use of surveillance cameras in this case, others have landed in hot water over hidden devices. A landlord in East Hampton, N.Y., had a lawsuit brought against him in October by a family who discovered hidden cameras in the walls and air ducts of a home he'd rented to them. And a resident at a public housing complex in New York City was served an eviction notice after she installed security cameras on the crime-plagued property.