Downtown surveillance camera

Cameras like this have triggered a lawsuit against Manchester by four individuals, represented by the ACLU-NH.

MANCHESTER — Lawyers for the city of Manchester and the American Civil Liberties Union tangled in a courtroom Tuesday over whether surveillance cameras downtown violate a 2006 law.

The city said the cameras are designed to monitor criminal activity on city sidewalks and storefronts, but the ACLU said they will inevitably lead to the surveillance of registration tags and automobile drivers, which is prohibited by that 2006 law.

Chief Superior Court Judge Tina Nadeau made no ruling from the bench at Hillsborough County Superior Court. Nadeau said she would issue a ruling on both the ACLU’s request for an injunction and the city’s request to dismiss the ACLU action.

“It’s 2019 and video cameras are everywhere. It’s just a fact of life,” said Peter Chiesa, the deputy Manchester city solicitor.

Chiesa said cameras are more efficient than posting a police officer on every corner and the people pushing the legal action — privacy and liberty activists who live in and outside Manchester — have shown no irreparable harm, which is necessary for a judge to issue a preliminary injunction against the city.

The city has delayed installation of the cameras at least until Nadeau rules on Tuesday’s hearing.

The ACLU sought the injunction after police announced their intention to install cameras in the downtown and aldermen voted to fund the effort. ACLU Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette said the $15,000 cameras can zoom in hundreds of yards and have night vision capability.

While the ACLU often cites constitutional provisions when it appears in court, Bissonnette kept his argument narrowly focused on the 2006 law. Although police have said they don’t intend to use the cameras to focus on traffic and drivers, Bissonnette said that would inevitably take place.

“The city’s scheme will inevitably and inherently cause officers monitoring the feed to identify motorists,” Bissonnette said, noting that officers would recognize high-profile motorists such as the police chief, mayor or aldermen. “We have these cameras up and people will be identified.”

The action appears to be the first legal challenge under the law and lawyers acknowledged that a ruling could impact several communities have installed cameras to watch city streets.

The case touches on two constitutional amendments that voters passed last year — privacy and taxpayer standing to challenge government actions. Bissonnette said he referenced the privacy amendment in his written submission and said Nadeau should use it as a guiding principle in the case.

Chiesa said two plaintiffs — former state Rep. Neal Kurk, who lives in Weare, and Manchester resident Holly Beene Seal, who rents an apartment in the city — lacked taxpayer standing. But he did not challenge the standing of plaintiffs Carla Gericke and John Slattery, who own homes in the city.

Bissonnette said all four have standing because they drive their cars on Elm Street and would be subject to surveillance.

Gericke, a liberty activist who has sought state and local office, said she would have no issue with a storeowner installing a camera and voluntarily sharing video with police.

“Everyone’s working together. That’s a decentralized approach,” she said. “What we’re talking about here is a very centralized approach where it’s centralized in one group of people’s hands. We don’t know really what’s going to happen to the data and I think it’s naive to just say we should trust them.”