Courts Aren’t Buying Dispensary-Raiding Cops’ ‘Expectation Of Privacy’ Arguments

We recently covered the complete absurdity that is the Santa Ana police union’s legal battle to clear cops caught misbehaving (to put it lightly…) during a raid on a pot dispensary. The cops in question tore cameras out of the wall, disabled the surveillance system and then, when they thought they were “safe,” made disparaging comments about a disabled woman, ate presumably pot-laced edibles, played a few rounds of darts and generally behaved like any group of miscreants would if they felt they were unobserved.

Among the numerous laughable claims made in the union’s effort to block recordings of these actions from being used against the cops performing these actions is that the recording itself is “illegal” as the officers had an “expectation of privacy” while performing their law enforcement duties in a public areas of a publicly-accessible business.

The suit also claims the video shouldn’t be used as evidence because, among other things, the police didn’t know they were on camera.

“All police personnel present had a reasonable expectation that their conversations were no longer being recorded and the undercover officers, feeling that they were safe to do so, removed their masks,” says the suit.

First off, any expectation of privacy only arose because the officers thought they had disabled all of the cameras. In any other reasonable situation, the presence of cameras would alert both police and members of the public that any expectations of privacy were severely misguided. Surveillance cameras in businesses are the rule, not the exception. Just because these cops missed a camera doesn’t make the recording “illegal,” nor does it somehow grant them an expectation of privacy that logically doesn’t exist.

The legal action seems doomed to failure, even more so now that the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court — whose jurisdiction includes Santa Ana, California — has just issued an opinion, backed by Supreme Court decisions, stating that public areas of public businesses carry no expectation of privacy.

This ruling sides with law enforcement over a citizen’s objections — the same thing the misbehaving cops are seeking, but completely in reverse.

In this case, a motel owner (Mahesh Patel) claimed Fourth Amendment violations were committed when officers entered his business and cited him for code violations in plain view. He claimed his private business (as in private ownership) granted him an expectation of privacy that was violated by the officers’ entry.

Not so, says the court:

As in Barlow’s, the police officers entering the public areas of the Galleria Motel are entitled to observe (without a warrant) anything observable by the public. Camara and See [Supreme Court cases cited by the plaintiff] only allow a commercial property owner to manifest a reasonable expectation of privacy in his property by closing off portions of his business to the public.

[…]

The areas of the Galleria Motel open to the public are not within the enumerated items in the Fourth Amendment; therefore, no search occurs when police officers enter those areas. Because the complaint alleged only that police officers entered the public areas of the Galleria Motel, Patel has failed to demonstrate a reasonable expectation of privacy pursuant to Katz, rendering Camara and See inapplicable to this case.

This affirms the lower court’s judgment.

The only allegation in the complaint (relevant to this appeal) was Patel’s claim that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The district court granted the motion, holding that neither Patel nor HFS had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the areas of the Galleria Motel that were open to the public.

So, for consistency’s sake, if nothing else, cops can’t claim to have an expectation of privacy in areas of businesses open to the public, not if the courts are going to deny the same privilege to citizens. But that’s exactly what the police union’s filing on behalf of the dispensary-raiding cops is trying to achieve.

And, indeed, the judge presiding over the case in Orange County Superior Court has already denied the officers’ request for an injunction, stating very briefly that the cops had no expectation of privacy because they were on duty at the time — never mind everything else about cameras, California’s wiretap law (which was invoked by the union) or the public areas of private businesses.

The union is still free to pursue its lawsuit against the police department, but it won’t be able to prevent the recordings from being used to investigate the participants of the raid. It will almost certainly appeal this decision, but there’s nowhere to go with this particular argument. Even if it makes its way up the chain to the federal appeals court, the Ninth has already expressed its opinion on the privacy expectations of public places… and it used Supreme Court decisions to back its assertions up.

But police unions and badly-behaving police officers are both known to explore every argument available, no matter how incredibly stupid, simply because to do otherwise is to admit wrongdoing. And there’s always a chance a system designed to cut cops as much slack as possible will still somehow come through for them.

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