Warrantless search of city streetlight camera footage does not violate Fourth Amendment

The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v.Kevin Eugene CARTWRIGHT, Defendant and Appellant. 317 Cal.Rptr.3d 472

Summary: The Court of Appeal held that police did not conduct a warrantless search when they accessed footage from city’s streetlight cameras that captured defendant’s image.

A jury convicted Cartwright of first degree murder with special circumstances.

The issue on appeal is whether the trial court erred in denying Cartwright’s motion to suppress video footage from the City of San Diego’s (City) “City IQ” streetlight camera program and evidence derived from that footage. The Court concluded that it did not and affirmed the judgment.

City IQ streetlight camera footage

An investigating detective accessed the City IQ streetlight camera footage. These cameras can not peer into businesses or residences and capture only the public right of way.They are in fixed position and located throughout downtown San Diego and other parts of the city. The devices capture “environmental data, like temperature, humidity, pressure, … traffic data, like car speeds, car counts, pedestrian data, bicycle data, and even video data.” The video feature creates high quality wide lens footage, but the devices do not record sound and do not act as gunshot detectors because the City did not “enable the microphones.” Footage is stored on each camera’s hard drive for five days; if it is not retrieved within five days, the camera records over the footage.

Video from the streetlight cameras showed which vehicle Cartwright drove to a flooring store where he murdered the store owner. Querying Department of Motor Vehicle records disclosed Cartwright as the owner of the vehicle. Police arrested Cartwright and, in a subsequent search, found evidence linking him to the robbery and homicide at the flooring store.

Cartwright moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the streetlight camera footage. The trial court denied his motion.

Cartwright argued that the police conducted a warrantless search when they accessed streetlight camera footage maintained by City. He contends that without the footage the police would not have learned his identity and evidence that resulted from the streetlight camera footage is fruit of the poisonous tree.

Motion to Suppress

The standard of review of a motion to suppress is whether the trial court’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. (People v. Camacho (2003) 23 Cal.4th 824, 830.) A reviewing court exercises its independent judgment in determining whether a search occurred and was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. (Camacho, at p. 830, 98 Cal.Rptr.2d 232.)

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. (U.S. Const., 4th Amend.) It “protects an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy against unreasonable intrusion  on the part of the government.” (People v. Jenkins (2000) 22 Cal.4th 900, 971.) For Fourth Amendment protection to apply, “ ‘a defendant must demonstrate that he personally has an expectation of privacy in the place searched, and that his expectation is reasonable.’ ” (Jenkins, at p. 972.) “ ‘In other words, the defendant must show that he or she had a subjective expectation of privacy that was objectively reasonable.’ ” (People v. Ayala (2000) 23 Cal.4th 225, 255.) Cartwright did not have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy when he traversed a public right of way in downtown San Diego in the middle of a business day.

The United States Supreme Court in Carpenter specifically indicated that its holding was intended to be narrow and did not extend to “conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras.” (Carpenter, supra, 138 S.Ct. at 2220.) Recordings from cameras that captured Cartwright’s movements in the downtown urban area in the middle of a weekday, do not rise to the same “unique nature of cell phone location records.”(Carpenter, at p. 2217.) Indeed, “ ‘[a] person traveling … on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.’ ” (Id. at p. 2215, quoting United States v. Knotts (1983) 460 U.S. 276, 281, 282.)

Here, the City’s camera program stands alone without aerial surveillance or even audio to integrate with the recordings captured by the streetlight cameras. The cameras do not reveal the transit patterns of people throughout the county. The information they capture is all information voluntarily conveyed to anyone in a public space.

Cartwright had no objectively reasonable expectation of privacy when he used the public streets and sidewalks downtown in a manner readily observable to passersby. The police did not conduct a “search” when they accessed footage from City’s streetlight cameras and, accordingly, there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment.

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