ACLU files suit against city for proposed street cams, calling them ‘illegal’

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“Eye in the Sky” street cam was temporarily installed on Elm Street in Dec. 2018. Photo/Carol Robidoux

CONCORD, NH – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging planned surveillance cameras in downtown Manchester. The cameras, which would capture live video of traffic on Elm Street, are illegal because they violate a state privacy law that specifically disallows cameras that capture a motorists’ identifying information, such as their face or license plate.

⇒Read NH’s law here (RSA 236:130)

“The surveillance cameras proposed by the City of Manchester are troubling: driving down Elm Street shouldn’t include recording video of your face, license plate, and passengers,” said Gilles Bissonnette, Legal Director at the ACLU of New Hampshire. “New Hampshire is a state that staunchly defends its right to privacy, and this plan is a direct violation of that by needlessly capturing the information of thousands of Granite Staters simply going about their business.”

According to a press release issued Tuesday by Bissonnette, he said the current installation plan includes three permanent surveillance cameras in the area of City Hall that will look north and south on Elm Street, with a live feed transmitted to the Manchester Police Department’s dispatch office. The images captured would be recorded and stored for 14 days. Although the intent may not be to monitor traffic, the high quality of the cameras allow users to zoom in and out, and would inevitably capture faces and license plates. This is the first challenge to NH’s privacy case in New Hampshire since the law was passed in 2006.

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View of a police camera on Elm Street, which was placed in December of 2018. Based on a drive-by on June 11, 2019, the camera is no longer there. Photo/Carol Robidoux

City Solicitor Emily Rice on Tuesday said she had not yet received a copy of the filing. Police Chief Carlo Capano said in a brief statement released Tuesday afternoon, “Manchester Police will be working with the city solicitor’s office which intends to vigorously defend the city’s actions.”

City Aldermen heard from Capano during an April 2 Board of Aldermen meeting that police were planning to install street cameras outside City Hall as part of a broader discussion over downtown safety concerns.

The lawsuit does not mention a surveillance camera placed by Manchester Police on Elm Street in December of 2018, which is no longer there.

An “eye in the sky” cam near the Brady Sullivan Plaza was placed about a month after an investigation into the use of force by Manchester officers during an arrest outside of Bonfire Country Bar.

On Jan. 15, Capt. Brian O’Keefe responded to some questions submitted by the InkLink regarding the Elm Street camera, including:

  1. When was the cam placed on Elm Street?
  2. When was it purchased? What was the cost and how was it funded – grant, police budget, or other funding streams?
  3. What happens to the footage – how long is it stored?
  4. Can police use it to identify things like face recognition or keywords (ie search for red cars in the vicinity on Jan. 15 during a certain time frame, etc.)
  5. Can you speak generally as to how information transmitted through the camera has been used in police investigations?
  6. Would the city see value in having more than one of these cameras as a public safety tool?

O’Keefe provided the following response:

“The cameras have been on Elm Street for approximately two weeks. They were purchased between three and four years ago through drug forfeiture money. We use them as an investigative tool, so specific information as to the capabilities and how and when they were used remains confidential. We are looking into purchasing additional cameras because it is a great tool for public safety.”

According to Bissonnette, state law on surveillance cameras was drafted in 2006 by former Representative Neil Kurk, who is a petitioner in this case.

Kurk said, “The statute we are defending in this lawsuit is unique to New Hampshire and, unlike other states, provides our citizens with a right to be free from government intrusion that is tantamount to a surveillance state. The goal of this statute is to prevent New Hampshire from becoming like New York City or London where government surveillance through cameras — regardless of whether the surveillance cameras capture criminal activity — is pervasive. I am deeply disappointed that Manchester is going down the path of government intrusion by installing surveillance cameras on Elm Street. This is exactly the type of surveillance that the statute was and is designed to prevent.”

Carla Gericke, a former New Hampshire State Senate candidate and petitioner in this case, said, “How can the police simply start surveilling downtown people and motorists without any input from the community? When I learned about the Manchester Police Department’s plan to put up surveillance cameras downtown, I organized a protest rally, and about 40 people attended. I am deeply concerned about this government intrusion. I am confident that Granite Staters do not want this type of surveillance because more than 80 percent voted to protect privacy when they amended the New Hampshire Constitution last year.”



About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!