On the surface, it seems like almost a silly question: “Can law enforcement use Google Earth without a warrant?”. Because the imagery is so outdated (“new” imagery is typically a month or two old, at best), it seems that it would be of little value to police and prosecutors. However, a story from KPLU sheds a bit of a different light on it.
Here’s an abridged version of the story:
Defendant Errol Speed argues investigators subjected him to an unreasonable search when they reviewed aerial images–Google Earth images as well as aerial photos taken by the county for planning purposes–before obtaining a search warrant.
To Speed (the defendant), the images make all the difference. Without those images, he claims, investigators would never have seen the structure on his tree-lined 11-acre property.
“My property is surrounded by 150 feet of native brush for privacy,” said Speed. “It’s impenetrable. You cannot see even in winter, when the leaves are off.”
Speed contends the fact that investigators were looking at those images without a search warrant is a violation of his privacy rights under Article 1, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution.
He adds the magnified satellite images yield a closer look than what could be seen by the naked eye of anyone flying over his property, and are themselves invasions of his privacy.
San Juan County Prosecutor Randy Gaylord has no doubt these images should be allowed.
“They were always in a lawful place when they took those pictures. That’s essentially the position that we’re taking,” he said. “And these are photos of spaces not necessarily considered private. Nothing prevents flights over Mr. Speed’s house.”
There have been similar stories over the years, such as when Riverhead, NY used Google Earth to track down residents with unlicensed swimming pools. We’ll likely see an increasing number of these stories as time goes on, as Google Earth continues to increase the freshness and quality of their imagery.
What do you think? Is this a good way to catch people that try to hide behind “impenetrable brush”, or is it an invasion of privacy?