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Seventh Circuit Finds No Problem With Surveillance of Chicago Detainees on Toilets

by David M. Reutter


On December 18, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Defendant officials of Cook County in a civil rights action alleging that surveillance cameras aimed at toilet areas in county courthouse holding cells violated detainees’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

Detainees Elizabeth Alicea, Katina Ramos, Michelle Urrutia and Jack Artinian filed the putative class-action complaint in August 2018, also alleging that the surveillance resulted in “intrusion upon seclusion” under Illinois law. Both men and women guards allegedly surveilled both men and women detainees.

After discovery closed in March 2019, it appeared that “[s]ome of those cameras capture the toilet area, though most do not,” the Seventh Circuit later recalled. Guards were also found to “monitor camera feeds infrequently.” The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois then denied class certification in October 2019 and granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, explaining that “because detainees have no reasonable expectation of privacy in jail or prison cells, routine and incidental viewing by authorized employees reviewing camera footage does not violate the Fourth Amendment.” Plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, Defendants argued that Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their claim. The Seventh Circuit agreed, except as to Alicea. Unlike her, Ramos, Artinian and Urrutia failed to “identify which holding cell they occupied,” the Court said. “Nor did they testify that they in fact occupied a holding cell with a toilet area recorded by a camera.” Thus, only Alicea “established facts necessary to satisfy standing at summary judgment.”

Turning to the merits of Alicea’s claim, the Court said its caselaw “does not squarely determine whether electronic surveillance and recording of private bodily functions in a jail or prison cell constitutes a search.” But finding that “use of cameras in courthouse holding cells is reasonable under the circumstances,” the Court said it “need not determine whether a search occurred in the first instance.”

“It is uncontested that recording of holding cell toilet areas is incidental,” the Court said, noting that “only a few cameras even capture the toilet.” Further limiting any possible intrusion, the Court continued, video feeds are not continually monitored, and recordings are stored for only 30 days—“unless legally necessary beyond that time”—plus there are restrictions on who can access the stored footage. Policy also bars guards from “view[ing] an individual’s private underclothing, buttocks, genitalia, or female breasts” during “showering, performing bodily functions or changing clothes, unless he/she otherwise qualifies for a strip search.”

It will no doubt give Chicago detainees great relief to know that a policy might have this much control over guards’ roaming eyes. And even if it doesn’t, the Court declared, any intrusion would be justified by the “security risks inherent in this setting.” The bottom line, the Court concluded: The cameras “are necessary responses to those risks,” so “any incidental viewing of a detainee’s body while using the toilet in a holding cell was a reasonably limited intrusion.” The district court’s order was thus affirmed. See: Alicea v. Cty. of Cook, 88 F.4th 1209 (7th Cir. 2023).

Cara Smith, Chief Policy Officer for Sheriff Tom Dart, “vehemently” denied that there were any secret cameras making recordings of detainees using the toilets.


Additional source: Northern Public Radio

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Related legal case

Alicea v. Cty. of Cook