On Wednesday, the ACLU of Louisiana together with the Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the City of New Orleans on behalf of a Louisiana public defender. The lawsuit has been filed as a result of the City’s refusal to respond to public records requests asking for the locations of the city’s more than 400 crime surveillance cameras.
The request for a map of any publicly visible real-time surveillance cameras was filed last year by Laura Bixby, a staff attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders. This information would be useful to Bixby because they may contain evidence that would exonerate her clients.
However, the New Orleans City Attorney’s Office refused to comply with the request, stating that the locations of the cameras are exempt from public disclosure, in spite of the fact that the cameras are clearly visible. The cameras are in use across the city for several different purposes in addition to capturing potential crimes, including monitoring traffic and street flooding. However, when potentially incriminating evidence is caught by the cameras, it is immediately made available to law enforcement officials.
Bixby asks that the same be done when potentially exonerating evidence is captured. “Just as these cameras capture incriminating evidence, they can also help prove an alibi or support a claim of innocence. Public defenders should have the same right to know the whereabouts of this footage as other members of the criminal justice system.”
According to Jamila Johnson, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, “By withholding the camera locations, the city is preventing people still presumed innocent from putting forth their best defense and receiving due process in the court system.”
Katie Schwartzmann, legal director of ACLU of Louisiana stated, “The cameras have the capability of panning and zooming to provide very intimate details of our lives to the people operating them. We paid for these cameras with our tax dollars – and we have a right to know when we are being watched by the government. It’s unclear why city officials are refusing to provide this basic location information to the public.”
The lawsuit states that the city’s refusal to release the locations of the cameras not only violates Louisiana public records law but is also “arbitrary and capricious.”
“The City has no interest, compelling or otherwise, in keeping secret the location of cameras that are not only publicly visible, but overt, conspicuous, and readily evident.”