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Supreme Court Passes Up Chance to Consider Workplace Monitoring by Police


February 19, 2002
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Supreme Court Passes Up Chance to Consider Workplace Monitoring by Police

by Gina Holland, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court turned down a chance Tuesday to decide whether police can use video cameras to secretly monitor people on the job without getting a warrant.

Justices could have used the taping of a college theater worker to revisit police surveillance restrictions. Last year, justices said that authorities must get warrants before using heat-sensing devices to detect crime through walls of people's homes.

The court declined, without comment, to review Lindalee Cowles' arguments that workers have privacy rights at their own desks.

The case, like the one the Supreme Court dealt with last year, turned on privacy expectations.

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled that Cowles could not expect privacy because other employees had access to her desk in the University of Alaska-Fairbanks theater box office.

Her lawyer, Robert John, said in court filings that the decision "establishes an unacceptable double standard, where the well-paid professional, executive or manager with his or her own office is deemed to have a reasonable expectation at of privacy in the workplace."

"The core force of workers who share space with their co-workers, the vast majority of whom are women, are deemed to live in a fishbowl," he added.

Campus police suspected that Cowles was stealing money. Without getting a warrant, officers crawled through vents in the ceiling and installed a hidden video camera aimed at her desk.

She was taped taking cash from an office money bag, putting it into her desk, then transferring it to her purse, court records show. Based on information from the tape, police obtained a search warrant. She was later convicted of theft.

The state Supreme Court split 3-2 over whether the taping violated Cowles' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The court ruled that the booth where she worked was not a private office.

"This decision permits deeply intrusive police surveillance of individuals who have - and deserve - every reasonable expectation of privacy," the two dissenters wrote.

The Alaska ruling against Cowles came three days before the Supreme court decision involving heat-sensing devices. In that case, justices by a 5-4 vote struck down the use without a warrant of the thermal imaging device that led to marijuana charges against an Oregon man.

Alaska did not file arguments with the Supreme Court to defend the taping.

The cases are Cowles v. Alaska, 01-849, and Kyllo v. U.S., 99-8508.




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