City street cams: Violation of privacy or modern-day fact of life?

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Carla Gericke, Atty. Gilles Bissonnette, and John “Brinck” Slattery in the lobby of Hillsborough County Superior Court Tuesday after a hearing on their request for an injunction to prevent the city of Manchester from installing surveillance cameras outside City Hall. Photo/Pat Grossmith

MANCHESTER, NH  — A civil rights lawyer told a judge that the city’s plan to install three highly sophisticated video surveillance cameras in the area of City Hall violates the privacy rights of people inside motor vehicles whose images would be captured along with the vehicles’ license plates which, under state law, is prohibited.

Attorney Gilles Bissonnette of the American Civil Liberties Union – New Hampshire, at a hearing Tuesday before Chief Justice Tina L. Nadeau in Hillsborough County Superior Court North, said it is irrelevant that the city says it isn’t going to record motorists or license plates.  It’s that the cameras can be used to do it, he said, and that ultimately the cameras will incidentally capture those images. 

WATCH BELOW: 2 YouTube videos that show the capabilities of the proposed street cams

Peter Chiesa, a deputy Manchester city solicitor, did not agree with that assessment saying the city has no intention to record motorists.  The camera would be pointed at storefronts and sidewalks, where there is no expectation of privacy, he said.

 It is 2019 and, he said, “cameras are everywhere.  It’s a fact of life.”

The Board of Mayor and Alderman approved the cameras last month.  The plan is to set up three permanent cameras near City Hall looking north and south on Elm Street with a live feed to the Manchester Police Department’s dispatchers who will monitor them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

Chief Carlo Capano told the aldermen the recordings would be kept for 14 days and used to help police investigate incidents such as lewdness and drug use that have been reported along Elm Street.  He said there will be no facial recognition software and no license plate readers in use.

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Peter Chiesa, a deputy attorney in the City Solicitor’s Office, makes his argument for the city to install surveillance cameras along Elm Street. He said the plan did not violate federal or state law. Photo/Pat Grossmith

According to court documents, the city wants to buy the cameras, which can zoom in for close-ups and do surveillance in total darkness, for $14,424 from PELMAC Industries.

The lawsuit was filed June 11 in Hillsborough County Superior Court North on behalf of four citizens:

*Former New Hampshire State Representative Neal Kurk of Weare, who drafted the law in 2006 and has said the city’s proposal “is exactly the type of surveillance that the statute was and is designed to prevent.”

*Carla Gericke, president emeritus of the Free State Project and a Manchester activist who led a protest against the cameras last April outside City Hall.  She is concerned about the cameras having a chilling effect on future protests. She questioned whether the cameras would record future protesters and if the police would use the information to make a database of trouble-makers and renegades. 

*John “Brinck” Slattery, a city resident who is communications director of a technology start-up company in Manchester.  He believes law enforcement has accumulated too much surveillance technology and leeway to use it indiscriminately against people who are not suspected of committing a crime.

*Holly Beene Seal of Manchester, who believes the cameras constitute “Big Brother.”

Bissonnette said dispatchers inevitably will be able to identify the mayor, police chief or a neighbor just by looking at the vehicles and zooming in on the video.  There’s nothing to prevent a member of the public to file a Right-to-Know request for the video, he said, again violating a person’s privacy rights.

Outside the courtroom, Bissonnette said the statute is unique to New Hampshire, that the legislators respect privacy more so than any other state and did so to prevent the very type of surveillance Manchester proposes.

The plaintiffs asked the court to issue a temporary and permanent restraining order against the city, preventing the installation of the cameras.

The city is asking the court to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs have no standing to bring it since there is no harm because the cameras haven’t been installed.  Chiesa also argued that Kurk should have no standing in the case because he doesn’t live in the city.

The city also argued that other municipalities — Exeter, Concord, Salem, Milford and Claremont — have installed cameras.  In court documents, the city included website addresses with live video feeds for four of the communities. The Concord feed was no longer available.

Bissonnette said just because those communities did it doesn’t make it legal. The lawsuit is the first one to challenge the surveillance cameras.

Judge Nadeau said she would take the arguments under advisement and issue a ruling as soon as possible.

Screenshot 2015 04 23 at 11.33.55 AMWhat say you? Invasion of privacy or fact of life? Sound off in the comments section below.

You can READ the court documents below provided by ACLU-NH

About this Author

Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.