Major U.S. city's plan to spy on citizens draws fierce opposition

(Photo by Joe Kovacs)

Plans by the city of Houston to require businesses to install surveillance cameras – and then give police access – has drawn a warning letter from a second civil-rights organization.

WND reported in May when the Institute for Justice warned city officials the spy plans were unrealistic and illegal, because they would be in violation of the 4th Amendment.

Now the Rutherford Institute is raising related concerns.

The civil and religious rights organization said the city’s “Exterior Security Cameras Ordinance” is nothing more than a “thinly veiled attempt to evade oversight and accountability for Fourth Amendment violations.”

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The ordinance was adopted in April and demands businesses install a citywide digital surveillance system that can be accessed by police without a search warrant.

The city is requiring that police be given access to the round-the-clock surveillance network whenever they ask.

However, lawyers for Rutherford warn that the scheme likely would not meet legal requirements.

“By placing the burden of round-the-clock, citywide surveillance on private businesses, the city of Houston is clearly attempting an end-run around the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement as it relates to surveillance by government officials,” explained constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of “Battlefield America: The War on the American People.”

“This kind of warrantless, citywide surveillance program inevitably gives rise to a suspect society in which the burden of proof is reversed so that guilt is assumed and innocence must be proven.”

While the city council claimed its plan was to address higher crime, its ordinance instead puts the burden of installing, operating, maintaining and providing to police “digital surveillance cameras that record the exterior property areas at all times.”

The initial demand is for businesses like bars, nightclubs, sexually oriented businesses and convenience stores to provide police with their assets.

“Business owners must bear the costs of the cameras, ensure the cameras are in proper working order, maintain recordings for at least 30 days, and provide video footage within 72 hours to police upon their request without a search warrant,” Rutherford said. Fines are up to $500 per day.

But Rutherford warned in a letter to the city that it is “proceeding as if it is not bound by the warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment.”

Instead, it fails in the constitutional requirements for a judge to cite probable cause for a search of video, a limit on the scope of the footage, and a limit on the dissemination of the video by police.

In raising concerns just a few weeks ago, Liberty Institute’s Jared McClain said, “In addition to trampling on the Fourth Amendment rights of business owners, Houston’s new law also infringes on property rights. This ordinance unfairly saddles certain businesses with thousands of dollars in new expenses to install high-definition surveillance cameras and to archive their footage so it’s available for police on demand.”

The decision of whether or not to install surveillance cameras at a business should be up to the owner, not law enforcement or city officials,” added Erica Smith, a senior attorney for the organization.

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