Houman Fakhimi

Huntington Beach Considers Public Surveillance Cameras

Huntington Beach officials are considering the possibility of installing numerous video surveillance cameras in the downtown area in an effort to combat crime.

Costa Mesa Criminal Defense Attorney Houman Fakhimi knows this is a slippery slope with regard to protection of basic civil liberties.

Such action has become more prevalent in cities across the country, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001. They have been installed in Chicago, Washington D.C. and other large municipalities, and are steadily making their way into smaller municipalities as well. But as a 2006 report entitled Guidelines for Public Video Surveillance by The Constitution Project at Berkely, there are major constitutional considerations - particularly with regard to the First and Fourth Amendments.

Specifically, there are concerns that privacy and anonymity may be clearly imperiled by a public video surveillance system if it is misused in order to track an individual or group of individuals without a warrant. Similarly, if powerful cameras were able to record a private conversation occurring in a public place, it could potentially have a chilling effect on free speech. There are significant legal questions about the legality of using such evidence in a criminal case.

Still, there have been no successful challenges of such systems that we are aware of. Councilmen for the City of Huntington Beach say their primary target is crime. An incident was cited last year in which hundreds of bicycles were stolen from a public pier. The argument was raised that some of those instances could have been prevented with the use of cameras.

We would, however, question whether surveillance footage is really the least intrusive way to reach this goal. If police officers are aware that there is a crime trend in a certain area, it would make sense to patrol that area with greater frequency - not affix cameras to record every single activity that occurs in that location.

This view was supported by at least one councilman, who said that such a move was akin to a Big Brother state, which was not a role he supported the government taking. He added that if individual businesses were interested in installing such equipment, that would be up to them. However, government's role is not to monitor citizens' ever move.

Police officials say the cameras will be an important tool to provide officer assistance in criminal cases.

But in addition to the potential for abuse, the American Civil Liberties Union has identified serious problems with regard to the effectiveness of these systems. In Britain, these systems have been in place for a number of years, and the ACLU pointed to numerous studies indicating that the cameras had zero effect on reducing crime.

Additionally, surveillance footage is often grainy and unclear. The ability of these systems to effectively identify a suspect are limited, and in fact could lead to improper identifications. Someone with similar skin tone, hair color or build could be easily mistaken for another in a police agency's haste to close a case.

Plus, there is ample evidence that those who monitor such footage disproportionately focus on people of color and other minorities. One study out of Britain found that black individuals were 1.5 to 2.5 times as likely to be surveiled than should be expected given their presence in the population. Officials in Huntington Beach say they would seek to have the cameras strategically installed in high-crime areas, ie., neighborhoods more heavily populated by minorities.

The presence of video surveillance footage in a criminal case can certainly pose some challenges for defense lawyers. However, it's worth noting are many legal principles on which this type of evidence may be suppressed.