Posted in Criminal Law on April 29, 2022
There is an old song with the lyrics, “Electric eye…Feel my stare, always there. There is nothing you can do about it.” Who knew an ’80s heavy metal song could be so prophetic?
Police departments all over the United States have found new eyewitnesses to crimes committed in every environment. From city streets to the manicured lawns of the suburbs to the rural backroads, millions are protecting their homes with Ring or some similar brands of video doorbells.
News story after story discusses these little eyes capturing crimes and providing evidence for ongoing investigations. But what about the owner of these eyes? Do the owners of these video doorbells have a say in what they allow authorities to see? Is this a matter of privacy or homeowner rights?
The moral climate of our society dictates that if you see someone do something wrong that you report the wrongdoing. That should also apply to recording wrongdoing, right? Sometimes, it does not concern wrongdoing as much as piecing together evidence to find the truth behind an occurrence like a car accident or slip and fall or any number of mishaps that may have parties with conflicting statements. A recording of the mishap can go a long way in discovering the truth.
Doorbell and home security cameras have caught shootings and carjackings, kidnappings, and murders. They have also provided evidence for personal injury cases on numerous occasions. These cases can be minor fender benders to major disasters.
Last year, a Ring Doorbell was pointed out over the porch and yard in Cahokia Heights, Illinois. It looked like a regular morning. In the distance, you could see two cars coming down the road toward the house.
A silver Buick sedan slowed down as it approached the stop sign. A blue Ford Explorer trailed the Buick. As the car slowed, the Explorer’s engine roared as the driver punched the gas and rammed the Buick. Both vehicles careened into the yard, closer to the camera. The Explorer slammed into a tree and lifted onto two tires, almost flipping over before coming to a stop close to the house.
The driver and passenger of the sedan got out and looked over their car’s damage. The driver of the Explorer leapt out of the SUV and ran toward the occupants of the Sedan. They flee down the street, and the camera shows the Explorer’s driver chasing after them.
The homeowner appeared in the frame, inspected the chaos on his front lawn and yelled after the fleeing trio. His confusion was evident.
The man and the woman from the Buick sedan returned later after police arrived. The sedan’s driver, Dominic Williams, and his girlfriend apologized to the homeowner for the mess. They told the police that Daren Hand was the driver of the Ford Explorer, and he used to be the boyfriend of Williams’’ girlfriend.
Hand had allegedly chased the two down and smashed into them on purpose. Hand has been charged with felony criminal damage to property.
Also last year, in California, footage from a Ring camera revealed a 13-year-old girl behind the wheel of her mother’s car. She had taken the car without her mom’s permission on a Friday night, picked up one of her 13-year-old friends in Vista, and drove about 13 miles away to Escondido.
The police spotted them at about 11 pm and pulled them over, but they sped off. The girl lost control of the car near Mission Avenue and North Ash Street. The doorbell recorded them sliding across the frame and crashing into a huge planter on the side of the road.
There, two men without homes were asleep in the bushes. They probably never saw it coming. One of the men died at the scene. The other died at the hospital.
The girls were arrested and detained. According to California law, 13-year-olds are not likely to be charged as adults unless there is intent. “Who would’ve known that there were two men sleeping in the brush when this happened?” A police spokesperson asked. Then, he said, “Their parents could be liable.”
In a 2021 survey conducted by Consumer Reports, 10% of video doorbell owners said they had shared footage from their doorbell cameras with law enforcement. Another 12% have admitted that they have not shared the footage with authorities even though they have had reasons to.
One of the largest providers of video doorbells, Ring is an Amazon-owned company with 10 million monthly active users as of 2020.
Ring has a long history of fulfilling law enforcement’s requests for video. They have partnered with more than 1,700 local law enforcement agencies and more than 300 fire departments. In one of their more active periods, Ring sent more than 5,700 video requests to partner agencies.
Ring also offers a service called Neighbors Public Safety Service which allows police and fire departments access to videos posted by users. The service offers a portal for authorities to ask camera owners to provide any videos which might be helpful with investigations.
It does not matter the manufacturer—Ring, Arlo, Google Nest, etc. If police see security cameras or video doorbells on homes near a crime or accident, chances are police or other agencies can ask to see the footage. A homeowner can always deny the request, but if the footage is important to an investigation, it can be obtained with warrants or subpoenas.
If law enforcement presents a warrant or subpoena, and the video has been saved in the manufacturer’s cloud or server, the owner of the device can be bypassed.
Many argue that law enforcement using security camera footage is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, citing unreasonable search and seizure. Protections also exist for the privacy of a homeowner in and around their home.
The Court of Appeals has ruled that doorbell or front yard video footage does not apply as a violation of rights because people in and around these public areas could have seen the incident with their own eyes. The courts have explained that there is no difference between a human witnessing an incident or a camera recording the incident.