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Houston Court Tosses Conviction Due to Improperly Seized Video Footage

Many Houston-area businesses install surveillance cameras to monitor their premises and help protect against criminal activity. But when the government tries to seize and use private surveillance camera footage, it must still comply with the same warrant requirements as any other search. This means, among other things, that there must be “probable cause” to justify seizing hardware containing such footage.

Should Judges “Infer” the Existence of Surveillance Cameras Everywhere?

On August 31, 2018, the Texas 14th District Court of Appeals issued an important ruling on this point. Sitting as a nine-judge en banc court, the 14th District held a trial judge erred in permitting the use of surveillance video evidence taken from a computer hard drive that police seized under a warrant for a specific property. In a 7-2 decision, the majority held the trial court failed to make a finding of “probable cause,” and consequently the video evidence should have been suppressed at the defendant’s trial.

Here is what happened. On Christmas Eve, 2012, witnesses traveling near Highway 290 saw two men, bound and gagged, thrown from the rear of a van. One of the men informed police officers that they were heading to a nearby auto-body shop when they were “robbed by several black males.” An officer subsequently located the auto shop and applied for a search warrant. In an affidavit supporting the warrant application, the officer said that based on his understanding of the facts, the two victims “had agreed to meet someone” at the auto shop, but when they arrived, “several suspects grabbed them, tied them up, beat them, poured gasoline on them, and threatened to set them on fire,” before proceeding to rob them and forcing them into their van at gunpoint.

After receiving their warrant, police proceeded to search the shop. They seized a number of items, including three computer hard drives. Forensic examination uncovered footage from a surveillance camera that “captured a portion of the offenses” and helped the police to identify one of the suspects, who was then arrested and charged, tried, and convicted of aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping. Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress the video footage, arguing the search warrant “did not list computers or computer hard drives as items to be seized.”

The trial court denied the motion. The en banc 14th District reversed, however, noting that in cases where “there is no evidence that a computer was directly involved in the crime, more is generally needed to justify a computer search.” Here, the police officer’s affidavit “provided no facts that a computer surveillance video was involved in the crime, directly or indirectly,” or that the existence of such a system “could be reasonably inferred.” Although the prosecution argued surveillance cameras are “part of everyday life” and therefore should be inferred to exist, the Court concluded that the “presence of surveillance video or equipment in an auto shop is not so well known to the community as to be beyond dispute.” More to the point, if a magistrate is allowed to “infer” the existence of video surveillance, that would effectively eliminate the need to require “specific facts before a search warrant is issued.”

Get Help from a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer

The Court of Appeals’ decision reaffirms longstanding Fourth Amendment principles, namely that the police need to demonstrate probable cause through the presentation of specific facts before seizing evidence that can be used against someone in court. Cases like this also illustrate the importance of working with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney who will zealously represent their clients’ interests at trial and on appeal. If you are charged with a crime and need immediate assistance, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today by calling (281) 280-0100.