Cops Caught Covering or Disabling Surveillance Cameras | Is that Legal?

Two days ago, I took the deposition of two police officers in a civil federal rights lawsuit (section 1983 case) involving an allegation that my client’s exterior home surveillance camera was disabled by the officers. They both pled the Fifth Amendment. Here’s a photo of the actual disabled camera:

This is from the “Creepy Cops Search Case,” which if you’ve been following my work, you’re well-aware-of. But what about situations where they don’t destroy anything, but just cover or move the camera?

I came across some recent unrelated footage of police officers covering, concealing, or otherwise redirecting, a home’s surveillance cameras. When this hit the interwebs, it of course immediately sparked discussion. Police officers defended the footage, claiming officer safety reasons to do this, with some claiming that they always do this as a matter of policy. Is this legal? Is this a Fourth Amendment violation? Is it a First Amendment violation? Is this a crime?

There are a few issues with this. Are we talking about doing this pursuant to the execution of a search warrant for the subject residence. And if so, does the search warrant specifically authorize the seizure of surveillance cameras themselves, rather than the footage?

My Client Films Officer Appearing to Overdose After Suspect Allegedly Throws Narcotics

It hit the news yesterday that several Oak Hill, West Virginia police officers had supposedly overdosed after narcotics were thrown at them by a suspect they were attempting to arrest. I was already looking into the science behind these claims when I found out that a client of mine actually witnessed what happened, and began filming with his cell phone.

“Sheriff’s Office: Two officers in Oak Hill overdose after suspect throws drugs at them” was the headline. Here’s the media report:

What were the chances that a client of mine just happened to be driving by when it happened? Compare the footage with the press release and let me know your thoughts on the matter. I have some initial thoughts, but want to look into it some more.

Here’s the statement issued by the sheriff’s department:

Here’s the footage:

Ring Doorbell Saves the Day Again: Eviction at the Wrong House

It’s a relaxing summer afternoon. You’re visiting family about 15 minutes away from your home. You locked your doors before you left, like you always do. Your three dogs are safely secured inside your house. All of a sudden you get a notification from your Ring doorbell security camera, at your front door. You see two police officers and some other stranger standing on your doorstep. They just busted the lock off your front door. They’re in the process of entering your home. You have three dogs in the house and you immediately have awful thoughts racing through your head about police officers and dogs. Not knowing what else to do, and having no idea what’s happening, you confront them using the doorbell’s audio speaker. They tell you that they’re there to evict you. You have no idea what they’re talking about.

This was the experience of Jennifer Michele of Land O’Lakes, Florida, in Pasco County. It was a complete surprise to her, given the fact that she had no knowledge of any eviction proceedings against her. She had been living there for 13 years. She posted this footage to Tik Tok, and it went viral. Here it is…

The Maxim that “a man’s house is his castle” is older than our Republic, and deeply rooted in Anglo-American jurisprudence. As scholars have observed, it protects all levels of society, down to the “poorest man living in his cottage.” It formed much of the basis of the Fourth Amendment itself. While 4th Amendment protections have eroded over time almost everywhere else – cars, schools, sidewalks, airports, and so on, it has retained its original strength in the home. The home still receives the greatest protection under the Constitution. It’s our castle. This is expanding in many states, with “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” laws, and other self defense protections for law abiding citizens. 

Searches and seizures which take place in a person’s home are presumptively unreasonable, which means they are illegal by default according to the Fourth Amendment. The only exceptions are consent and exigent circumstances, which are not at issue here. 

Thus where law enforcement busts your lock off your front door, without a warrant, or in this case a valid eviction order, they violated your Fourth Amendment rights, by default application of the law. But are there any consequences? This is where qualified immunity comes in. 

There are two scenarios: 

1) Where the warrant or eviction order lists the homeowner’s correct address, but which is actually the wrong address. So on its face, there is a warrant for that address, but it was supposed to be a different address; or 2) where the warrant or eviction order lists an entirely different address and they just showed up and executed it at the wrong house. This could be equally applicable to arrest warrants where the wrong John Smith is arrested. Is the mistake in the warrant, or in the execution of the warrant? If the mistake is in the warrant, then how did it get there, and who was responsible? These questions are all highly important to the qualified immunity issue. The unfortunate reality is that qualified immunity is typically granted in these sorts of mistaken identity or address cases. Not always, but very frequently.

One must also remember that this is Pasco County, the same county as the video I recently posted showing the SWAT style entry into a woman’s home over a building permit inspection. That brings up what is most likely a better legal argument here, which is the existence of a policy of constitutional misconduct. This is likely not the first issue. Why is Pasco County law enforcement showing up in tactical gear, with very little information or communication, for an eviction? There may be a Monell Claim here, which would be important because a county or municipality cannot assert qualified immunity as a defense to Monell liability for a policy of constitutional violations.

The consequence of out of control government here was relatively harmless in the end. But often it’s not. Similar mistakes are often made, with tragic results. When law enforcement forcibly enters someone’s home, they do so with firearms, which often are used against occupants – either human or canine. Because, they have to get home safe at night. Nobody else does, necessarily, but they must, at all costs. Protect and serve. When you have the peace-of-mind of qualified immunity, you can just act first and sort out the damage later. Or, as we used to say in football, “let the paramedics sort them out.” 

Police Caught on Doorbell Video Removing FJB Flag

A video went viral on Tik Tok showing Ring doorbell camera footage of a police officer removing a family’s “F” Joe Biden flag from its display on the front of the home. The homeowner explained in a subsequent video that he had been previously threatened with arrest for good ‘ole disorderly conduct if he continued to display the flag. Is this a violation of the First Amendment? What about the Fourth Amendment?

Back in February, I discussed the “F” the police T-shirt case out of Ohio, where the 6th Circuit issued an opinion denying qualified immunity to police officers sued for arresting a man for “disorderly conduct” for wearing a shirt containing protected First Amendment speech. In that case, the Court made very clear that police academies have to stop teaching young officers that any use of profanity is disorderly conduct. To the contrary, the law is clear that the First Amendment protects the use of profanity, so long as it’s unaccompanied by other conduct that could be construed as disorderly. Thus, the use of the “F word” in and of itself cannot be criminal conduct.

“It is well-established that ‘absent a more particularized and compelling reason for its actions, a State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, make the simple public display of a four-letter expletive a criminal offense.’”

Cohen v. california scotus 1971

Not only can the “F word” be used, but it can be used to verbally criticize the police. Or, in this case, Joe Biden. As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state….”

Moreover, expressing criticism of a sitting U.S. President, via use of a flag, is pure First Amendment protected activity. The homeowner mentions in his follow up video that he had researched the town ordinances, and none were applicable, but rather that the mayor lived down the street and held an opposing political ideology. I’ll note that, even if there were a town ordinance, it would be unconstitutional, as a violation of the First Amendment. Now an HOA would be another matter, potentially. Why? Because that’s a private organization, and therefore cannot violate the First Amendment.

Also, what about the Fourth Amendment? As I’ve explained numerous times, the front porch of your home, which would include a flag sticking out of it, is considered part of your home – your castle – for Fourth Amendment purposes. If a police officer walks up and seizes a part of your home – something off of it – is that a seizure? You better believe it. Is it illegal? Illegal in this context means “unreasonable.” Unreasonable, when it comes to your home, is defined with a question: was there a warrant? No, then it’s illegal as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Federal lawsuit filed against Parkersburg Police officers caught on video setting up a false arrest

Recently we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in federal court, alleging that Parkersburg, West Virginia police officers were caught on video setting up the false arrest of a man for allegedly committing battery on a police officer. Fortunately there was surveillance footage, which was shown at the man’s jury trial, resulting in his acquittal. Warrantless arrests require the existence of probable cause. If no probable cause exists, for instance in the event that the arresting officers themselves create the alleged nonexistent crime, the Fourth Amendment is violated. “False arrest” is basically a type of unreasonable search and seizure.

Here’s the complaint, and the video will follow shortly:

Federal Lawsuit Filed in the Creepy Cops Caught on Video Case

The lawsuit was filed today on behalf of Dustin Elswick, against Putnam County, West Virginia, along with four police officers involved in the infamous “Special Enforcement Unit.” These are the cops who were caught on hidden camera searching the inside of Dustin’s home. Although they cut the wire on an outside surveillance camera, they were apparently unaware of the cameras inside the home.

This is a federal “Section 1983” lawsuit alleging the violation of federal constitutional rights; namely, the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. A warrantless search of your home is automatically unconstitutional in the absence of one of two exceptions: consent, or exigent circumstances (emergency), neither of which apply here. Two prior federal lawsuits have already been filed against the SEU thus far for similar allegations in the Johnson case, as well as the Dillon case. The remedy is an award of money damages, along with reasonable attorney fees and expenses.

There was an internal investigation, as the news reported, but we never received information about the outcome. That sheriff has since been replaced.

Here’s the Complaint:

Here’s the original video:

Here’s the update video:

U.S. Supreme Court to hear cell phone seizure case – United States v. Wurie

Cell phones are increasingly becoming a primary component of any encounter between police and civilians.  Along with that comes the warrantless seizure of cell phones.  After all, they hold great evidentiary value from a law enforcement perspective.  Neither the Fourth Circuit, nor the U.S. Supreme Court, has yet taken a position on whether there is a First Amendment (and therefore Fourth Amendment) right to videotape police officers.  This isn’t exactly the same issue, since it mostly deals with seizing and searching cell phones incident to an arrest.  But, the issue is the same when the person filming is arrested, at which point their phone will be seized.

When the phone is seized can the officers go through the phone without first obtaining a warrant?  There is a very well written post on this topic from the Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review blog, written by Lacy Triplett.  She opined that:

The Court may take the approach of the majority of circuit courts and find that a cell phone is a container, which can be searched incident to arrest so long as the search is limited in scope and contemporaneous to the arrest. Or, the Court may take the approach of the First Circuit in Wurieand find that the privacy interests in an individual’s cell phone greatly outweigh the government’s need to immediately search a cell phone without first securing a warrant. 

In any event, you know that right now across the country, police officers go through the cell phones of arrestees, where they find valuable information such as, every text message conversation the person had in the last year – or even their email history.  They also contain photos, videos – you name it.  Those practices, and law enforcement training, is going to depend on the outcome of Wurie.