Sennett v. United States, No. 11-1421

Decided: January 30, 2012

Laura Sennett, a photojournalist specializing in covering protests, sued the United States for a violation of the Privacy Protection Act (PPA) when officers conducted surveillance of her home and seized her property pursuant to a search warrant while investigating a violent protest outside the Four Seasons hotel in Washington, D.C. The district court granted summary judgment to the United States, citing the “suspect exception” to the PPA whereby officers investigating criminal activity may conduct searches when probable cause is present.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Rejecting Sennett’s arguments that she had innocent explanations for her involvement with the protest—namely photographing it—and that the decision not to file charges against her showed she had done nothing wrong, the court emphasized that probable cause determinations are made based on the totality of the circumstances and for the purpose of furthering criminal investigations. A later determination that a person is innocent does not retroactively defeat probable cause and the government was properly entitled to summary judgment based on the “suspect exception” to the PPA.

Full Opinion

-C. Alexander Cable

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