The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that police violated the Fourth Amendment when they installed a surveillance camera to observe a suspect without first obtaining a search warrant. The Sept. 11 decision affirmed an appeals court reversal of the man’s narcotics conviction. The man was convicted after a search of his residence, which was conducted based on evidence recovered from the surveillance camera, led to the discovery of significant quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine.
Police installed the surveillance camera outside the man’s Colorado Springs home in 2015 after receiving an anonymous tip. The camera allowed officers to see over the man’s six-foot fence and into his garden. The surveillance continued for about six months. The court ruled observing the man’s fenced-in curtilage amounted to an illegal search. The Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel, which provides criminal defense attorneys for indigent defendants filed an amicus brief on behalf of the man. The brief urged the court not to base their decision on the height of the man’s fence as not all defendants have the means to enjoy that level of privacy.
Curtilage is the area around a residence that is considered to be part of the dwelling. This means that police must secure a warrant if they want to search it. Areas outside a property that are not considered curtilage are not protected by the Fourth Amendment under the open fields doctrine. When determining whether or not a piece of property is curtilage, the courts consider the following:
• How close the area in question is to the main structure
• Whether the area in question is within some sort of enclosure
• What the area in question is primarily used for
• What steps the property owner took to protect the area in question from access or observation
This decision shows that judges will rule in favor of defendants when their constitutional rights are violated even in cases where there is clear evidence of guilt. However, these rights may cease to be an issue if the defendants waive them or confess. This is why individuals accused of committing crimes should remain silent and not consent to warrantless searches.