Can the Police Demand Doorbell Camera Footage?

August 24, 2022 by Anthony Riccio

Doorbell cameras have seen major commercial success in the last few years. As more Americans find ways to use digital technology to streamline their lives, it was only a matter of time before the traditional doorbell would also experience significant changes. However, as more households use doorbell cameras, police have also found a new form of video evidence to prove criminal misconduct. Although many of us want safer streets, it can sometimes come at a cost to personal privacy.

What are Doorbell Cameras?

Since the advent and availability of the wireless internet (“Wi-Fi”) and the Cloud (on-demand commuting availability for network operations and data storage), an increasing number of household appliances have been connected to the internet. From smart televisions streaming internet applications to smart fridges and climate control devices, it is hard not to find a traditional piece of analog home technology that has not been digitalized. Doorbells are no exception.

Traditionally, the analog doorbell required a homeowner or occupant to interact with visitors whenever the doorbell rang physically. Doorbell cameras changed that as they allow homeowners and occupants to interact with visitors remotely via the internet. Doorbell cameras provide the following features:

  • Record and display visitors on a phone or computer screen when interacting with a doorbell.
  • Contain one- or two-way communication features to allow residential occupants and visitors to interact with each other remotely.
  • Allow homeowners and occupants to grant remote access to a residence if the doorbell camera has a feature to unlock the front door electronically.

Doorbell Cameras by the Numbers

Although it is challenging to obtain scientifically accurate, publicly accessible information about doorbell cameras, Consumer Reports recently released a study regarding the use of doorbell cameras amongst respondents to a survey:

  • Of 2,213 respondents asked, 49% believe their home has the wiring capacity to install a doorbell camera.
  • Of 2,203 respondents asked, 18% had installed a doorbell camera (an increase of 3% from the year prior).
  • Of 1,767 respondents asked, 50% would consider installing a doorbell camera.
  • Of 391 doorbell camera owners asked, 10% have shared camera footage with law enforcement, while 79% stated they had no reason to do so.

Police Interactions with Doorbell Cameras

The last few decades have experienced a massive increase in video and audio recording devices that provide private stakeholders and law enforcement with real-time data as events occur. This has allowed law enforcement to obtain new evidence when investigating criminal conduct.

Law Enforcement Access to Doorbell Camera Footage

There are multiple ways for law enforcement agencies to obtain doorbell camera footage. The single largest manufacturer of doorbell cameras, Ring Cameras (a subsidiary of Amazon), operates an online platform called Neighbors by Ring. The Neighbors web application allows Ring users to post footage captured by the account owner’s doorbell camera to a public platform.

Neighbors’ law enforcement portal, Neighbors Public Safety Service, allows authorized law enforcement accounts to request doorbell camera footage from users. Since 2020, the number of Neighbors daily active users has reached over 10 million, with thousands of active law enforcement agencies across the United States using the service.

Emergency Requests from Law Enforcement

Many commercial doorbell camera companies, including Ring and Google, allow law enforcement agencies to make emergency requests for footage. Unlike accessing publicly available footage or obtaining footage from users directly, the doorbell camera companies have allegedly provided law enforcement agencies with user footage without the user’s consent.

Some digital experts and watchdogs have scrutinized the large doorbell camera companies for providing footage via emergency requests, thereby potentially violating their terms of service and not providing more transparency to consumers.

Doorbell Camera Admissibility in Court

Determining the admissibility of a piece of evidence in court can be an incredibly complicated endeavor. Generally, audio- or visual-based evidence can survive many admissibility standards because they usually portray events as they occur–instead of someone’s recollection or first-hand experience. If evidence is relevant, is less likely to prejudice a jury, and portrays criminal or civil misconduct, it is likely admissible.

Warrantless Searches

Recent legal trends have demonstrated that some doorbell camera footage requests may not always be obtained legally by law enforcement agencies. For example, because doorbell cameras capture footage of the entrance of a residential home, obtaining footage without a warrant, subpoena, probable cause for a warrantless search, or homeowner consent may be illegal.

To access a person’s home, either physical access or use of audio/visual devices, law enforcement must obtain a court-issue warrant detailing the parameters of the search, including the exact location, date, material sought, and features of the search (i.e. searching in certain rooms, containers, electronic equipment, etc.). To obtain a warrant, law enforcement must have probable cause that a crime has been committed. Probable cause is based on law enforcement’s reasonable suspicion of criminal misconduct per findings via an investigation. Using evidence obtained without a valid warrant, or reasonable suspicion in the case of warrantless searches, may taint any future evidence, rendering it unusable in subsequent legal proceedings. 

Law enforcement can also obtain footage through a lawful subpoena (a summons for a private or government person or entity to act, including releasing documentation) and compel production of footage stored by a doorbell camera company. Lastly, law enforcement agencies can lawfully obtain video footage by accessing publicly available information posted by users or requesting footage directly from users.

Addressing Law Enforcement Requests for Doorbell Camera Footage

Law enforcement requests for doorbell camera footage are no longer a question of “if” but “when.”  Homeowners should consider the following before installing a camera or releasing custody of footage to law enforcement:

  • Research consumer experiences of particular doorbell cameras, especially interactions with law enforcement.
  • Review the terms of service of each brand before making a purchase.
  • Carefully consider releasing video footage when asked by law enforcement.
  • Do not release footage of visitors or the inside of the residence without a lawful warrant or subpoena.
  • Save video footage after it has been requested by law enforcement (intentionally deleting or failing to save footage once official request via a court order may be considered evidence tampering).
  • Do not intentionally obstruct a law enforcement investigation.
  • Maintain a calm attitude when interacting with law enforcement.
  • Contact a criminal defense attorney if presented with a request for doorbell camera footage.