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Tuggle v. United States

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  1. Newsgathering

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 15 media organizations

Court: U.S. Supreme Court

Date Filed: Nov. 11, 2021

Background: In infamous Watergate-era leak hunts, CIA agents with telephoto lenses would post up in an “observation nest” outside newspaper offices — or homes, or churches — in an effort to spot reporters contacting their sources. Today, new technologies like the pole camera have made it far easier for investigators to keep an eye on constitutionally sensitive locations without the labor and expense those efforts once required. But courts have still allowed the government to deploy them for targeted, persistent and long-term surveillance without requiring a warrant.

A recent example comes from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Between 2013 and 2016, several law enforcement agencies, without first obtaining a warrant, monitored the home of a private individual named Travis Tuggle using three video cameras attached to nearby utility poles. The cameras recorded nearly 18 months of video footage, which was ultimately used as evidence in Tuggle’s prosecution for drug trafficking.

Tuggle asked a federal district court in Illinois to suppress the evidence collected through the pole camera surveillance, arguing that it constituted a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied his motion, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision, though “not without unease about the implications of that surveillance for future cases.” Tuggle then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Our Position: The Supreme Court should grant Tuggle’s petition and reverse the decision of the Seventh Circuit.

  • Targeted, persistent and long-term camera surveillance threatens First Amendment freedoms, including the freedom to gather the news.
  • The Fourth Amendment requires a warrant before investigators engage in targeted, persistent and long-term camera surveillance that would chill First Amendment rights.

Quote: “The technology at issue in this case poses an untenable threat to confidential association, and with it the freedom to gather the news. Too many courts have acquiesced in a framework that would give the government discretion to surveil citizens in the most constitutionally sensitive of locations without a grain of suspicion — to keep, among other predictable targets, inquisitive reporters and suspected sources under constant supervision. The press could not, under that scrutiny, provide the vigorous check on government that the Constitution recognizes and protects.”

Related: Reporters Committee attorneys have previously filed friend-of-the-court briefs in cases concerning the connection between the First and Fourth Amendments and its relation to reporter-source confidentiality, including in Carpenter v. United States and in United States v. Moore-Bush.