Downtown surveillance camera

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

MANCHESTER — City officials intend to “vigorously defend” a plan to install surveillance cameras in downtown Manchester, after the ACLU of New Hampshire filed a lawsuit looking to block the proposal.

The ACLU-NH, representing four private petitioners, filed a petition for declaratory judgment Tuesday in Hillsborough County Superior Court on behalf of former state lawmaker Neal Kurk of Weare and three Manchester residents: Carla Gericke, John Slattery and Holly Beene Seal.

The cameras, which would capture live video of traffic on Elm Street, are illegal because they violate a state privacy law that specifically forbids capturing by camera identifying information like a driver’s face or license plate, according to the ACLU.

“The surveillance cameras proposed by the City of Manchester are troubling: driving down Elm Street shouldn’t include recording video of your face, license plate and passengers,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at the ACLU-NH. “New Hampshire is a state that staunchly defends its right to privacy, and this plan is a direct violation of that by needlessly capturing the information of thousands of Granite Staters simply going about their business.”

“Manchester police will be working with the city solicitor’s office, who intend to vigorously defend the city’s actions,” Manchester Police Chief Carlo Capano said in a statement.

City Solicitor Emily Rice declined comment on the lawsuit, citing the ongoing nature of the litigation.

The current installation plan includes three permanent surveillance cameras in the area of City Hall that will look north and south on Elm Street, with a live feed transmitted to the Manchester police dispatcher; the video will be recorded.

The images captured would be recorded but stored for only 14 days, police say.

“Although the intent may be to monitor traffic, the high quality of the cameras allows users to zoom in and out, and would inevitably capture faces and license plates,” according to Bissonnette.

Kurk, a longtime privacy advocate who drafted the 2006 law cited in the lawsuit, said the statute is unique to New Hampshire.

“I am deeply disappointed that Manchester is going down the path of government intrusion by installing surveillance cameras on Elm Street,” Kurk said. “This is exactly the type of surveillance that the statute was and is designed to prevent.”

Carla Gericke, president emeritus of the libertarian-leaning Free State Project, another petitioner in the case, recently organized a protest over the cameras.

“I am deeply concerned about this government intrusion,” she said, alluding to a constitutional amendment sponsored by Kurk that passed in November.

“I’m confident that Granite Staters do not want this type of surveillance because more than 80 percent voted to protect privacy when they amended the New Hampshire Constitution last year,” she said.

Capano announced plans to install the cameras at a meeting of the police commission in April. The decision comes as police beef up their presence downtown, a move demanded by city leaders and business owners who cite rampant panhandling and loitering.

“This is going to be a little bit more added look on what’s going on on Elm Street,” Capano said of the cameras.

Elm Street is already under surveillance, with a temporary camera mounted on a light post at the corner of Elm and Mechanic streets.

Tim Baines, alderman for Ward 3 and downtown business, declined comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but expressed disappointment over the latest legal action brought against the city by the ACLU-NH.

“I would echo what I said back during the sidewalk debate,” said Baines. “I felt then and feel now that the ACLU has been over reaching. I do not wish to comment on the current lawsuit at all but will say that if the ACLU keeps at it, and gets their way then we are on a path to a lawless society. Good law-abiding citizens should have rights as well and those should always be protected. I believe those rights are under attack by the ACLU.”

On Tuesday, several aldermen reiterated their support for installing the cameras.

“I hope our city attorneys will stand up and fight this battle,” said Alderman at Large Joe Kelly Levasseur. “With all the crime occurring downtown I believe we have a vested interest in keeping City Hall safe, while also keeping an eye on issues of violence that may and has occurred near it.”