The city of New Orleans operates a sophisticated video surveillance system throughout town. While city employees frequently provide police and prosecutors with video footage to aid criminal cases, the city will not even provide a simple map of the camera locations to aid attorneys representing the accused. When the city refused a public records request by a public defender to provide locations of the 400 cameras, the SPLC and ACLU of Louisiana filed a lawsuit to obtain the records and prevailed after a judge found that the exemptions to public records law cited by the city did not apply.
The surveillance network, part of a $40 million public safety plan launched in 2017, threatens to further tip the balance of power in the criminal justice system. In addition to the city not providing footage that could support an alibi, video footage is typically deleted after 30 days – very often before a charge is filed and before defense counsel learns a camera is involved. What’s more, public defenders might not know that the probable cause for a person’s arrest came from a video camera, as the initial police reports sometimes list the source as a “confidential informant” when using the cameras to obtain information, and other times fail to mention the cameras at all.
The SPLC filed suit after Laura Bixby, a public defender, filed a public records request in August 2018 for merely “any map or maps” showing the location of all publicly visible cameras that are part of the network. The city denied the request, citing security and terrorism exceptions. The lawsuit describes how the city unlawfully denied the request, noting that the cameras are not subject to such exemptions to public records requests. The lawsuit maintains that the city should disclose where the cameras are located to promote transparency in our government and preserve fairness in our courts.