MANCHESTER — A Superior Court judge has refused to block the installation of police surveillance cameras in downtown Manchester, but has ruled that under a newly enacted constitutional amendment two city residents have standing to proceed with a court challenge of the cameras.
On Monday, Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau denied a preliminary request to block installation of the cameras, which police want to use to monitor downtown activity. The New Hampshire branch of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city on behalf of three city residents and the state representative who drafted the surveillance amendment in question.
In a statement, the ACLU noted the order dealt with only a preliminary injunction and the case will proceed.
“We urge the city to cease its plan to install these surveillance cameras that, as the court noted, will inevitably cause the city to commit a crime,” ACLU-NH Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette said in a statement. “If implemented, the cameras will inevitably expose the city to criminal liability,” he said.
The cameras are planned for City Hall Plaza and will point north and south. Police spokesman Heather Hamel said she does not have a definitive date for the cameras to be installed, but police will notify the public once they are up and running.
Earlier this year, Manchester aldermen approved the cameras.
In a written statement, Mayor Joyce Craig said she is pleased with the ruling and the work on the City Solicitor’s behalf to defend the city’s use of cameras.
“Through modern approaches to fighting crime, the Manchester Police Department’s efforts are making our city a better and safer place. These security cameras offer our Police Department yet another tool to increase public safety downtown and throughout the city,” Craig said.
The order parses a 2006 law that makes it a criminal offense for police or government officials to use surveillance cameras to identify occupants of a motor vehicle or read the license plate when on a public road.
Nadeau determined that the two city property owners who filed the lawsuit — civil liberties activist Carla Gericke and John Slattery — have taxpayer standing to bring the action. But the judge said they would not suffer irreparable harm, so she did not issue the preliminary injunction.
Police have said the cameras and dispatchers will focus on activity in areas off city streets, such as sidewalks and other public areas. But the ACLU said that — inevitably — a police officer or dispatcher monitoring the feed will recognize someone’s car, which will amount to a violation of the law.
Nadeau agreed with that point:
“The court agrees with petitioners that the simple act of a government employee recognizing a vehicle or its occupants, without taking additional steps such as running a license plate through dispatch, constitutes a violation of the statute as written,” Nadeau wrote. She also agreed that inevitably a government worker will recognize someone’s car.
But that was about the only good news for the ACLU. She said that police cameras could film Gericke and Slattery while they drive down Elm Street, but that would not be a violation of the law. A violation would only occur if a government official recognized them.
She said the two could not sue if they were recognized because the 2006 law calls for a criminal charge when the law is violated, not a civil suit.
And she noted that while police could not look at footage and recognize anyone, the footage would be available to the public under the Right-to-Know Law, and any member of the public — except for police — could view the footage and recognize anyone without breaking the law.
“Petitioners have not articulated any harm that would arise from a violation of the statue aside from the fact that a crime will have occurred,” Nadeau wrote. They can’t claim their privacy is violated because they would be on a city street where anyone can see them in a car and read the license plate number.
Nadeau also rejected legal standing for former state Rep. Neal Kurk of Weare, who sponsored the 2006 law, and Manchester resident Holly Seal.