by Valerie Verkamp
The Platte City Police Department appears to have violated a family’s constitutional rights after mounting a camouflaged video camera on private property directly facing the family's backyard and several bedroom windows.
In placing the camera on private property, Platte City officials acted without a warrant and without the permission of the property owner where the camera was placed.
Stephanie Santos, who resides with her family on Wallingford Drive near Riverview Park, didn't initially know who installed the video surveillance and says she was terrified when it was discovered by her father, Steve Nash, who lives in the adjacent duplex.
After discovering that police strategically placed the hidden recorder in that location that “feeling of terror didn't particular lesson,” she said.
Santos stood with her camera in the exact spot authorities placed their video camera and says the image displayed her entire backyard, including a swing set where her children play, as well as numerous bedroom windows.
Doug Bonney, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, says the Platte City police have gone too far and violated Santos' Fourth Amendment rights, which protects the home and its surroundings from unreasonable government invasion.
“Everybody should be concerned about the police spying on them in the backyard and through their windows with cameras mounted in trees,” he said.
“The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and generally requires a warrant” before police take such severe measures as video recording someone in the privacy of their home or yard, said Bonney.
Bonney said it's a possibility the police department could end up in court over this. He suggested that police officials apologize to the Santos family and make any necessary changes to ensure that the rights of Platte County residents are protected. He said city officials should require the police department to adopt a policy that strictly prohibits this type of intrusive behavior.
“This was really stupid,” said Bonney. “Video surveillance should only be done if the employees have a warrant to do it.”
The American Civil Liberties Union says Police Chief Carl Mitchell should be “counseled strongly” to realize his “Orwellian misconduct” will not be tolerated.
“Although the Santos family is glad that the police department removed the camera on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, the family believes that the city violated its privacy for several days, and the family would like assurances from the police department and other city officials that this Orwillian misconduct will not be repeated, that the police department and city will adopt policies that will prohibit future video surveillance of private homes, and that the city will take other steps to compensate the family for the invasion of privacy,” wrote Bonney in an admonitory letter to Chief Mitchell, which cited case law indicating their actions were considered by the courts to be intrusive and in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
“Please contact me or have your attorney contact me so that we can discuss an appropriate resolution to this unfortunate incident,” Bonney closed in his letter to the police chief. (To see the entire letter from the ACLU to the police chief, click here)
When Santos initially contacted authorities about the video camera she was told by a female officer that it was mounted in the tree to “monitor people cutting through the woods” and was located on park property.
“That is a nonsensical story,” said Santos. “You can't cut through there to get to anywhere and if it were park property (like the city first claimed) why wouldn't people be able to walk through there?”
It turns out the camera was not on park property, but rather personal property owned by Cheremie Kratzer of Kansas City in Jackson County. Kratzer said the police department did not ask her for permission to place a camera in her tree.
"I had no idea it was there until Steve Nash called me and asked if I put it there," Kratzer told The Landmark Tuesday.
Kratzer indicated it's not the first time the city has come upon her property without permission.
"The city has dumped gravel on my lot before. I don't know why they think it's theirs," she said.
Asked if she would pursue a trespass situation against police, Kratzer said, "It doesn't affect me, but they actually should not be doing that to their citizens. That's bizarre. They're the police department and they are doing things that are illegal.”
City officials offer up a different story as to why the video recorder was placed there in the first place.
In a press release, the city says “the game camera was placed near the rear entrance to Riverview Park at Wallingford Drive to help the city determine the number and species of wild life that were drawn to a area where feral cats had been regularly fed over the past year.”
Santos says she believes the camera was strategically placed in that tree by authorities in an attempt to catch her father feeding feral cats.
Nash, who was recently ticketed for feeding cats, has had an ongoing dispute with city officials regarding his right to feed stray cats.
Regardless of the city's intent, their actions were wrong, Santos and the ACLU point out.
Santos said she was told by the American Civil Liberties Union that if she wants to seek damages she would have to contact a civil litigations attorney. Santos said that is not her intention at this time.
“We simply want this to stop,” she said. “We want the people of Platte City to be aware of what has happened, so that it won't happen again to us or anyone else. I feel like the chief of police and by extension the police department don't have the interest of citizens at heart. They are bullies. They think they can do what they want and justify the means. It's scary, I want to be able to trust people, I want to teach my kids to respect them and I don't feel like at this point I can do that comfortably.”
Santos notes she would feel better if Chief Mitchell stepped down.
“He has failed in his office to uphold standards of a police chief,” she said.
D.J Gehrt, city administrator, says at the direction of the Public Safety Sub-Committee, he had begun reviewing the details surrounding the situation. Presently, he is investigating who installed the camera, the duration it was mounted, as well as why the video recorder was directed toward the Santos' backyard, where most Americans would have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
“This really should not have happened. We should not be having game cameras looking into peoples' backyards. That is not the kind of city we want to be, regardless of what the intent was. We want to work with people and not have them be concerned about what their government is doing.”
Jean Maneke, an attorney who specializes in public right -to-know matters for the Missouri Press Association, told The Landmark the situation as explained to her indicates "there are some real issues.”
"Law enforcement doesn't have a right to put a camera on someone's property without some kind of court permission. That's no different than executing a search warrant," Maneke told The Landmark this week.
The police chief declined comment when contacted by The Landmark. In September, city officials proposed a controversial idea that would have allowed the city's codes enforcement officer to search or inspect private property even without the property owner's permission if the municipal judge found probable cause to issue a search warrant for the purpose of proving the existence of codes violations.
It adopted by the city, the ordinance would have provided a police presence during the search.
An outcry from Platte City residents, who claimed the proposed ordinance violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, put an end to the proposed administrative search warrant ordinance.
(For Landmark publisher Ivan Foley's editorial on the hidden camera situation, click here)