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Civil rights groups sue New Orleans for map of surveillance camera locations

Representing a Louisiana public defender, the SPLC and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana today filed suit against the City of New Orleans over its refusal to provide a map of the city’s 400 real-time surveillance cameras. 

Though the cameras themselves are publicly visible, the City of New Orleans has refused to comply with a public records request for a map of their locations.

“The cameras have the capability of panning and zooming to provide very intimate details of our lives to the people operating them,” said Katie Schwartzmann, ACLU of Louisiana legal director. “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.”

Last year, Laura Bixby, a staff attorney for the Orleans Public Defenders, filed a public-records request for a map of all publicly visible real time surveillance cameras. The cameras are used for a variety of purposes by the city, including monitoring street flooding and traffic. The map would assist Bixby in her clients’ defense because they often contain exonerating evidence, just as potentially incriminating evidence is made available to law enforcement. The New Orleans City Attorney’s Office denied the request, claiming that the records are exempt from disclosure.

“Just as these cameras capture incriminating evidence, they can also help prove an alibi or support a claim of innocence,” said Bixby. “Public defenders should have the same right to know the whereabouts of this footage as other members of the criminal justice system.”

“The city is not only invading the privacy of New Orleanians and visitors, but 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” said Jamila Johnson, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC.  “The city should disclose where the cameras are located to promote transparency in our government and preserve fairness in our courts.”

Calling the denial “arbitrary and capricious,” the lawsuit asserts that the city’s refusal to turn over the records violates Louisiana’s public records law and asks the court to order the city to produce the requested records. “The City has no interest, compelling or otherwise, in keeping secret the location of cameras that not only publicly visible but overt, conspicuous, and readily evident,” the complaint reads.