Wisconsin Search and Seizure Laws – Warrantless Hidden Video Surveillance

By Reddin & Singer

Video Camera

Every year, many individuals throughout Wisconsin and the United States have Fourth Amendment rights violated. The search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment are all about privacy. Both the United States Constitution and the Wisconsin Constitution prohibit law enforcement from conducting “unreasonable” searches and seizures. Essentially, law enforcement members are not allowed to conduct a search or seizure of a person, home, or property without a valid search warrant or probable cause to believe the individual is committing a criminal act.

In the absence of a police warrant, police officers must have “reasonable suspicion” to believe that a person has committed or is about to commit a crime. This standard requires the police officer to be able to communicate “reasonable and articulable facts” to justify the search or seizure. “Reasonable suspicion” is a standard less stringent than “probable cause.” If police do not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion, the search or seizure is considered an unlawful intrusion, and any incriminating evidence found as a result can potentially be suppressed.

In United States v. Mendoza, a federal district judge in Wisconsin incorporated the recommendation of a magistrate judge that a hidden video surveillance camera used by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) without a warrant did not violate the defendant’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.

The facts of the case are as follows. Police officers had entered the property and seen marijuana plants growing outside of the “curtilage” of the property. Curtilage is an area of land attached to a property. In other words, it is the land immediately surrounding the home, building, or structure and is generally considered to be private for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. After seeing the marijuana plants, the officers installed cameras to be able to observe the marijuana plants. A few days later, a magistrate judge signed a warrant approving the action.

Later on, the two defendants filed motions to suppress evidence gathered through surveillance cameras installed on property where they grew marijuana. The defendants alleged that the video surveillance violated their reasonable right to privacy, considering there was a gate on the property as well as the presence of multiple “no trespassing” signs. The government argued that the areas monitored through the cameras were not subject to the Fourth Amendment protection.

The government ultimately prevailed because the court accepted the magistrate’s reasoning that the Fourth Amendment protections were limited only to “persons, houses, papers and effects.” Here, the area under surveillance was akin to an open field, which is not protected under the Fourth Amendment’s meaning. The court cited Oliver v. United States for its decision, in which the Court explained that open fields are not “effects” under the Fourth Amendment.

If you need the services of an experienced, knowledgeable, and reliable Milwaukee criminal defense attorney, you should contact the law offices of Reddin and Singer. We understand the nuances of the Fourth Amendment and will provide you with dependable legal representation. You can expect the utmost respect and professionalism from our entire team. If you are unsure about your next step, you will be glad to know we offer free, no-obligation consultations to each prospective client. To learn more, contact us online or call us at (414) 271-6400.