Seventh Circuit Finds No Right to Privacy in Back of Police Van

CHICAGO (CN) – Robbery suspects’ whispered conversations in the back of a police van were fair game to be secretly recorded and used against them in court, the Seventh Circuit ruled.

Five Chicago-area men were arrested on Jan. 30, 2013, in a sting operation as they allegedly prepared to rob a purported stash house described by an undercover agent who posed as a drug courier for a Mexican drug cartel.

The five men – Randy Walker, Randy Paxton, Cornelius Paxton, Adonis Berry and Matthew Webster – were handcuffed and placed in a police transport van without being read their Miranda rights. The prisoner compartment of the van was surrounded by steel walls with benches on either side and a small plexiglass viewing window to the driver’s seat.

The men quietly conversed among each other as they rode to the police station, but unbeknownst to them, their conversation was recorded and videotaped by a hidden camera and microphone in the back of the van.

Berry remarked midway through the conversation that the van was “probably bugged,” according to court records, but the men continued their conversation and made statements incriminating themselves in the planned robbery.

A federal judge suppressed the state’s use of this secretly recorded conversation in court, but the Seventh Circuit reversed Friday.

“Given the inescapable fact that a detainee has been taken into custody and placed into a marked police vehicle for transport to a law enforcement facility, we are not convinced that any expectation of privacy on the part of the detainee in the van is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable,” Judge Ilana Rover said, writing for the three-judge panel.

The Chicago-based appeals court has previously found that arrestees have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the back of either a police patrol car or squadrol.

Although the van’s layout hides surveillance equipment from view, “this case is no different from those in which individuals have been left alone in the back seat of a patrol car, thinking no one can overhear what they say,” the ruling states.

Judge Rovner noted that surveillance technology – from dash-cams to body cameras to citizen cellphones – has become so commonplace that the arrestees should have anticipated there would be a camera in the back of a marked police van – and in fact, one of them did anticipate the van was bugged, but they kept talking anyway.

“Government, members of the public, and detainees share an interest in monitoring the handling of detainees in order to ensure that they are being treated appropriately,” the 20-page opinion states.

In this case, the law enforcement agents were clearly not primarily concerned with the arrestees’ welfare because they did not monitor the conversations in real-time, but recorded the video for review at a later date.

But regardless of the actual motivations for recording the arrestees, “the government has legitimate reasons, wholly consistent with the public interest, for monitoring individuals it has taken into its custody and placed into a transport vehicle,” Rovner said.

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