AS THE MASSACHUSETTS Legislature continues to study how to regulate police-worn body cameras, the Supreme Judicial Court on Friday established legal limits on how body camera footage can be used.
The court found that a police officer may record a police response in someone’s home using a body camera. But the police cannot then use that footage for an unrelated investigation without a warrant.
“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,” wrote Justice Dalila Wendlandt on behalf of the court in a 35-page opinion.
The decision came in the case Commonwealth v. Abdirahaman Yusuf. The Boston Police Department responded to a call about a domestic disturbance at Yusuf’s home, and an officer wearing a body camera filmed the home during the police response. The footage was then uploaded to a Boston police database.
The Boston police’s gang unit at the time was conducting an unrelated investigation into Yusuf for firearms offenses. A detective seeking a basis to gain a search warrant for Yusuf’s home viewed the footage from the domestic disturbance call, compared that footage to another video of Yusuf holding a firearm, and identified the location where he had the firearm based on the presence of distinctive curtains. The detective obtained a search warrant, found a weapon, and arrested Yusuf on firearms charges.
Because the use of body cameras is relatively new in Massachusetts, there have been few regulations or legal precedent established to govern their use. The SJC ruling addressed two issues.
The first was the question of whether video taken in a home by a body camera amounts to an unlawful search of the house. In that case, the SJC ruled that it does not. As long as the officer is legally present in the home and only does what is necessary to respond to the call, having the body camera footage is no different than having a police officer see something that is in plain view.
However, the court then found that the Boston police acted improperly in allowing the gang unit to review the footage for an unrelated investigation. While the initial taking of the footage was justified, Wendlandt wrote, “this subsequent review for investigatory and unrelated reasons cannot be justified as a limited extension of the officer’s plain view observations.”
Wendlandt wrote that the reason for allowing body cameras is to protect the police from false allegations of damage, promote police accountability, and serve as a record of police-civilian interactions. But there are also legitimate concerns that the cameras will be used as an invasion of privacy.
She said allowing a police officer to comb through footage seeking evidence of crimes unrelated to the reason an officer was called to a home is the equivalent of a “general warrant,” a long-ago British practice of letting the police rummage through a home seeking evidence of a crime, which the Constitution’s prohibition against an illegal search was meant to address.
Allowing officers to review the footage to investigate an unrelated crime, she wrote, “is divorced from protecting police officers from false accusations of misconduct, ensuring police accountability, or preserving a record of police-civilian interaction.”
Amid national allegations of police misconduct, the use of police body cameras has been growing both in Massachusetts and around the country. With that have come growing calls for regulation of the cameras and their footage.
A bill that would have developed a statewide code for the use of body cameras was introduced in 2019. A major criminal justice reform bill that was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on December 31, 2020, created a task force to study body camera regulations. But so far the Legislature has not passed any regulations.
Kade Crockford, the technology for liberty program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the agency welcomes the decision that police cannot store and “trawl” around body camera footage without obtaining a warrant. “Digital technologies like body-worn cameras grant government agencies vast new powers to collect, analyze, and process information about us,” Crockford said in a statement. “When combined with limitless data storage and machine learning-driven analytical tools, the stakes are raised even higher. Today’s ruling helps ensure privacy survives in the 21st century.”