Everyone from local law enforcement officials to government agents have been using hidden cameras for the purposes of surveillance for almost as long as hidden cameras have been around. Yes, it’s true that a police officer can’t just install a camera anywhere they’d like and watch whoever they want – they have to go through a lengthy court procedure to prove that the action is both justified and necessary.
But even then, there are still situations where the legality of government surveillance enters a murky ethical gray area – which is exactly what is going on right now in a Texas legal case. Recently, a man found a spy camera installed on his property by the federal government. Not only did he remove it and refuse to give it back, but he also sued the agencies that put it there. And somehow, things only get more interesting from there.
The Bizarre Twist of Operation Drawbridge
Trouble began for the United States government last fall when a 74-year-old man, who himself is both a rancher and an attorney, was walking around his property located just south of Encinal, Texas. It was that fateful afternoon that the man discovered what he believed to be a small, portable and somewhat hidden camera located high on a tree near his son’s home. Not only was the camera encased in a green, plastic weatherproof box, but it also had a transmitting antenna – meaning that it was currently sending whatever footage it was recording to somebody offsite.
Since the man had absolutely no idea where it came from or how long it had been there, he did what any homeowner would do: he removed it.
Then, a few days later, he got two separate phone calls – one from Customs and Border Protection and one from the Texas Rangers. Interestingly, both organizations were claiming the camera as their own property and both were demanding its immediate return. As the situation was quickly getting more confusing, the man refused – he said he was keeping the camera. Both agencies threatened him with arrest.
Being a lawyer, he didn’t exactly care.
Because the man’s property was located so close to the border between the United States and Mexico, he’d had a number of altercations with local Customs and Border Protection agents over the years. He’d lodged many complaints about agents trespassing on his land and was tired that people seemed unwilling to do anything about it. He said that he took the camera as the “absolute last straw” and decided that this was going to be the issue he focused on.
So not only did the man not return the camera to either agency, he also sued them both – accusing them of both trespassing and violating his constitutional rights to privacy.
Currently, the camera is believed to be a part of “Operation Drawbridge” – a program designed to closely monitor the border for people attempting to cross illegally. Once again, the man absolutely does not seem to care about any of this.
As of right now, this particular legal case is continuing to play out in a court of law. Texas officials have already attempted to claim qualified immunity, which is a somewhat complicated legal doctrine that is intended to protect law enforcement officials from exactly this type of situation. The man and his attorneys are also attempting to get judges to allow the cameras themselves into evidence – something that would also bring the footage into court, which would unlock more information about who placed the camera, when and why.
One thing is for sure – whether he realized it or not, this case is likely going to set a precedent for the limits of the government’s power to conduct surveillance on private property moving forward. Does the government need a landowner’s permission to install a hidden camera if his property – which itself is also part of the border – is exactly what officials were trying to monitor in the first place? We’re about to find out in one courtroom in Texas in the not-too-distant future.