Houston Passes Ordinance Forcing Businesses To Install Cameras, Provide Warrantless Access To Recordings – Techdirt

from the fighting-crime-by-oppressing-citizens dept

Citing a post-pandemic shutdown surge in violent crime and some other shaky reasoning, the city council of Houston, Texas has decided the time has come to violate the rights of business owners. Here’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown for Reason:

Officials in Houston, Texas, have voted to require an array of businesses—including bars, convenience stores, and strip clubs—to install surveillance cameras and make footage from them readily available to police. The dystopian move is a transparently unconstitutional attempt by city leaders to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

To access video from the cameras, police officers will not need a warrant.

Here’s how the city council justifies its decision to increase the expenses of some Houston business owners while simultaneously eliminating their Fourth Amendment rights.

The City Attorney and Chief of Police for the Houston Police Department recommend that City Council approve an Ordinance amending Chapter 28 of the Code of Ordinances to add a new Article XXI, containing Sections 28-671 through 673, and to add a new Section 28-411.

As background, the City of Houston has experienced an increase of violent crimes due to the pandemic, social anxiety and economic uncertainty, open carry law and a strained criminal justice system resulting in a criminal backlog of cases. The City of Houston Code of Ordinances does not currently require that owners and operators of bars, nightclubs, sexually oriented businesses, convenience stores, and game rooms provide exterior video coverage of their buildings.

The first paragraph makes it clear no businesses were asking for this imposition, despite also being victims (directly or indirectly) of the increase in violent crimes.

The second paragraph provides a list of several possible contributors to this crime rate increase, none of which will be addressed by this new law. The pandemic, social anxiety, and economic uncertainty go ignored. The open carry law, passed in late 2021 and opposed by many Texas law enforcement agencies, may be a contributing factor but the law has not been in place long enough to assess its contribution to Houston crime rates. And the “strained justice system” is something Houston has apparently dealt with for more than a half-decade without making any progress.

The solution to a bunch of problems that seem unrelated to the targeted businesses is to make the businesses pay for the proposed solution while eliminating part of their rights. It’s a pretty heavy ask from the city.

The purpose of the proposed amendment to Chapter 28, Miscellaneous Offenses and Provisions, is to establish a requirement for bars, nightclubs, sexually oriented businesses, convenience stores, and game rooms to install exterior security cameras providing video coverage from the exterior of the building to the property line.  The ordinance lists technical specifications for the cameras, which must operate at all times. The ordinance also requires convenience stores to place lighting, at least six foot-candles in brightness, in any place to which customers are permitted access.  The lighting must be turned on between sunset and sunrise and shall not be directed onto residential properties.

The camera and lighting requirements are to take effect on the 90th day following passage and approval of this ordinance.  Additionally, the ordinance requires that a camera owner or operator store video footage for no less than 30 days, and provide HPD with the footage within 72 hours of a request.

This demand that businesses purchase, maintain, and deploy camera systems that fit these specifications — as well as provide warrantless access to any recordings police express an interest in — is further justified by even more disingenuous statements by the city.

The collaboration between local businesses and law enforcement to leverage technology will prove invaluable in the efforts to better identify and apprehend persons alleged to have committed violent crimes.

“Collaboration” generally means entities working together to achieve a common goal, rather than one entity forcing several other entities to comply with its demands or be subject to $500/day fines.

There is no impact to the fiscal budget or no additional spending authority. 

Well, sure… not when you offload the entire cost to the private sector. It’s easy to limit government spending when you make citizens open their own wallets to purchase government-mandated surveillance equipment.

This new law won’t continue to remain cost-neutral for long. The ACLU has already stated the new law is unconstitutional. So has the Institute for Justice, which has called on the city to ditch the law before it’s enacted. These are the kinds of statements that proceed lawsuits, which will definitely impact the fiscal budget. While certain kinds of businesses are subject to closer regulation, a blanket ordinance that treats a large variety of businesses as contributors to Houston’s crime problem isn’t going to survive a courtroom challenge.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, houston, houston pd, police, surveillance, surveillance cameras, texas

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