The Colorado Supreme Court will take up the scope of modern police surveillance in a case Tuesday that centers on officers in Colorado Springs who used a camera to spy on a man for three months without ever getting permission from a court to do so.
The justices will consider whether police violated the man’s constitutional rights when they put a camera on a utility pole across the street from his house and watched his driveway, front yard and part of his backyard for months, angling the remote-controlled camera, which could pan and zoom, so that it could see over the man’s 6-foot-tall privacy fence.
The officers targeted the home based on a tip from a confidential informant and never sought a warrant to use the camera, so the decision to surveil the man’s house was never cleared by a judge or magistrate.
Courts have given police officers broad leeway to watch suspects without first getting a warrant — say by climbing the steps of a nearby apartment complex and looking into a neighboring yard, or by peering over a fence — but the key issue in this case is whether the technological surveillance should be governed by different rules because it makes months-long, 24/7 surveillance extremely easy, said Sam Kamin, a professor of law at the University of Denver.
“A U.S. Supreme Court case on this point said if the police care enough to follow someone around in an unmarked car for weeks, well OK, they are going to make that value judgment,” he said. “But it’s very different when the police could obtain the same information simply by putting a tracking device on a car or pulling the GPS data from a cellphone provider. They can do that sort of costlessly, which means they could do it always, to anyone, for however long.”