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Surveillance Cameras: When Do They Violate Privacy Rights?

Surveillance Cameras and Privacy
Surveillance Cameras

Surveillance cameras sprout like weeds at traffic lights, stores, schools and nearly every other corner of society.  Increasingly, the watched ask what about privacy and the liberty right to move about freely? Home security cameras wireless are also becoming extremely popular to calm the worries homeowners have. This brings up the issue of privacy in court cases.

Surveillance Cameras: Court Cases

A young woman goes to the back of the office building where she works to change clothes.  She later learns a surveillance camera caught everything, including the times when she had severe sunburn, went to what she thought was a private area, unbuttoned her blouse and applied prescription ointment.

Do Courts Uphold Surveillance in Claims For Invasion of Privacy?

In another case surveillance video documents a school maintenance man walking into a classroom, going through the teacher’s desk and removing an envelope full of cash.  Was the District Court correct in suppressing the video surveillance, holding it an unconstitutional search, violating the Constitution?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable searches or in this case intrusions by surveillance camera where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Court Rulings on Surveillance Cameras

In the first case the woman changed in the back of the office before and after hours when she thought she was alone.  This was a business office, part of a college in downtown Salem, Massachusetts with a large plate glass window in the front.  She only changed when no one was around, when no clients or visitors were expected.

The issue for the court asked whether she had a reasonable expectation of privacy.  True, she maintained an actual expectation of privacy.  Her problem was whether that expectation measures up to what society recognizes as reasonable.

In the case of Nelson v. Salem State College decided in 2006 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the court held there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in the office.  The hidden video camera presented no violation.

What about the janitor caught on camera pilfering money from the teacher’s desk drawer?

Some cases hold that a reasonable expectation of privacy exists in areas devoted to an employee’s exclusive use.  Such private areas include desks and file cabinets not shared with other employees.  But this took place in a classroom, open to teachers, students and school staff.

The maintenance worker did not have exclusive use and control of the room. His job required him to go there.  So, in the case of State v. McLellan the court found no reasonable expectation of privacy, holding that the surveillance camera violated no constitutional right.  The New Hampshire District Court order suppressing the video evidence was overturned.

Surveillance Cameras: The Fourth Amendment

Constitutional protections against surveillance cameras apply only where reasonable expectation of privacy exists.  This Fourth Amendment right requires two conditions, first, an actual expectation of privacy and second that the expectation is one that society as a whole recognizes as legitimate.

The less private an area is, the less likely a reasonable expectation of privacy exists.  There’s less privacy expectation in an office than a home.  Where surveillance cameras are installed in open work areas, schools, ATMs, and shopping areas they generally don’t violate a constitutional privacy right.

Philosophical and practical personal quandaries invoked by such issues have been addressed by many from George Orwell to George Carlin.  That’s beyond the scope of a brief legal blog highlighting the reasonable expectation of privacy and whether it protects against surveillance cameras.

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8 thoughts on “Surveillance Cameras: When Do They Violate Privacy Rights?”

  1. What about cameras on private property that are used to surveil the neighborhood and to peer into neighbors’ comings and goings?

    1. Hi DeAnna,
      If the cameras are pointed inside windows of houses there’s a problem and you should consult an attorney in the jurisdiction. If the cameras are recording what could be seen “in plain view” so to speak from the street, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

  2. I live in a mobile home park. My neighbor across the street has a camera in the bedroom facing at my front door. I have pictures and videos for proof. Is there any legal action I can take against them?

  3. The security company installed the camera system on the premises of my house, but they did not give me the username and password so I could control my camera, is it reasonable or not, and the legal how’s it

    1. I’m not sure this is a legal question so much as an issue to be taken up with the security company. There should have been some initial training as to how to use the system, how to set up your personal access information and the like? I would contact them and request information.

  4. My neighbor recently installed flood light security camera on the back of her house. Every time I walk outside onto my property her lights shine crazy bright. I feel my privacy is violated because its motion activated when I step on my own property and I know she has an app that alerts her of motion. I’m pretty sure she can see our activity on her phone with alerts. I have a problem if she is able to pick up a camera view from my property. Can I do anything?

    1. Sounds to me like invasion of privacy and/or harassment with the lights. Contact t-he police and in a cool calm manner report this. If the police refuse to take action saying it is “a civil matter” retain an attorney.

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Attorney Myers is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Association, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers, and New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. The Law Offices of Andrew D. Myers offer a broad range of legal services in personal injury cases in Massachusetts (MA) and New Hampshire (NH) areas.

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