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VEC hopes camera on Houstons didn’t irk public

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By Damon Lawrence

Volunteer Energy Cooperative is in the business of supplying power.

“We have no need to watch anyone,” Vice President of Operations Clyde Jolley said.

Law enforcement might, though, and that’s why authorities sought the help of Volunteer Energy in its investigation of Rocky Houston.

Jason Dobbs, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified in federal court that Volunteer Energy installed the pole camera that law enforcement used to watch Houston.

“We had a request from the ATF to assist,” Jolley said during a phone interview. “We assisted them in installing the camera.”

Volunteer Energy provides power service in 17 counties, including the South of the River section of Roane County.

“We don’t want the community mad at us,” Jolley said.

Dobbs, during his testimony, and Jolley, during the interview, emphasized the camera was installed on a public utility pole on Dogtown Road.

Houston and his older brother, Leon, have alleged in court that the camera was on their property. They also argue the video footage it produced should be suppressed because agents didn’t have a warrant when it was installed last October.

Dobbs said he didn’t get a warrant because he wasn’t aware of any laws that required him to. Pole camera surveillance is a common investigative tactic, he said.

Law enforcement obtained a warrant for the use of the pole camera on Dec. 19, 2012, the day the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in another case that expressed concerns about “long-term video surveillance of a person’s backyard without a warrant.”

Allegations that Rocky Houston, a convicted felon, was in possession of firearms prompted the secret surveillance. He was eventually charged with 14 counts of being a felon in possession of firearms.

The government accuses Leon Houston of being armed while high on marijuana when agents searched the Houston property in January. He faces one count of possessing firearms while being an unlawful user of a controlled substance.  

The Roane County Sheriff’s Office participated with the ATF in the investigation of Rocky Houston. Sheriff’s investigator Jason Mynatt said the utility pole where the camera was located was near the home of Juanita and Ledford Ray Johnson, Rocky and Leon Houston’s aunt and uncle.

Mynatt said he monitored the camera for several months.

“I take it this camera had zoom capability, and you were able to move it around?” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Jennings asked Mynatt during a hearing earlier this year.

“Yes, that is correct,” he responded.

The camera allowed Mynatt to watch what the Houstons were doing on their farm.

Rocky Houston was allegedly observed with firearms in his possession and target shooting. He faces up to 140 years in prison.