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Warrant Needed to Use Body Camera Footage — Massachusetts SJC Decides in Commonwealth v. Yusuf

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decides Body Camera Case 

In the aftermath of the 2014 Michael Brown shooting by a law enforcement offer, police departments all across the country began to require officers to wear body cameras while on duty. Body cameras were meant to protect citizens from police misconduct. But, what if body camera footage is used against you in court? The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided today Commonwealth v. Yusuf the question of whether body camera footage capturing the inside of someone’s home requires a warrant. 

What happened in the Yusuf case?

Responding to a call regarding a domestic disturbance in Yusuf’s home, a Boston police department officer donning a body camera recorded the encounter in the home. The recording captured many intimate details of the parts of the home through which the officer traveled, including personal items, some illegal. The video footage was then saved and stored by the police department. At a later date, officers retrieved and reviewed this video recording, without a warrant. The officers did this in connection with another investigation to confirm a suspicion that the defendant was engaged in criminal activity. 

On the basis of the body cam footage, a police department detective obtained a search warrant to again search the defendant’s home, and in that search, the department found firearms and ammunition. Based on the footage of the body camera, the defendant was convicted by the lower court with unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of ammunition without a firearm identification card. 

The defendant filed a motion to suppress this evidence as it was tainted from the first search which the defendant contended was filming in violation of his constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. 

The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the use of the body camera within the home did not constitute a search, because it documented the officer’s plain view observations during his lawful presence in the home.

However, the investigatory review of the video footage, unrelated to the domestic disturbance call, was clearly unconstitutional. This review resulted in an additional invasion of privacy, unrelated to the originally authorized intrusion into the defendant’s home; absent a warrant, it violated the defendant’s right to be protected from unreasonable searches guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment

The Supreme Court wrote in their decision that “the home is not a place to which the public has access, or where an individual might expect a recording made during a lawful police visit would be preserved indefinitely, accessed without restriction, and reviewed at will for reasons unrelated to the purposes of the police visit . . . a database of body-worn camera footage of the places where officers are called upon to assist residents, reviewable at will and without a warrant, for unrelated investigations, renders ‘technologically feasible the Orwellian Big Brother’.”

With this decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court greatly expanded the rights of citizens against police overreach and misconduct. 

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