|On April 20, 2022, the Houston City Council passed an ordinance ostensibly aimed at addressing “an increase of violent crimes due to the pandemic, social anxiety and economic uncertainty, open carry law and a strained criminal justice system resulting in a criminal backlog of cases.” The Exterior Security Cameras Ordinance requires certain private businesses (all bars, nightclubs, sexually-oriented businesses, convenience stores and game rooms inside city limits) to work in consultation with the Houston Police Department in order to install digital surveillance cameras that record the exterior property areas at all times. Business owners must bear the costs of the cameras, ensure the cameras are in proper working order, maintain recordings for at least 30 days, and provide video footage within 72 hours to police upon their request without a search warrant. The Ordinance is slated to take effect mid-July. Failure to comply with the Ordinance is a punishable offense for business owners with fines up to $500 per day.
However, as The Rutherford Institute warns, by lodging the responsibility for the cameras with private businesses, the City is proceeding as if it is not bound by the warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment, giving police carte blanche access to the surveillance footage from these digital cameras. Consequently, the Ordinance does not require a judge or magistrate to confirm that the police demand for video footage is supported by probable cause of criminal activity under oath, it does not limit the scope of the video footage which can be requested by the police in order to prevent obtaining extra and unnecessary video footage, and it does not require the crime to be violent or even serious in relation to the Ordinance’s stated goal of reducing violent crime. The Ordinance also fails to limit the use and further dissemination of the video footage by the police.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.
The Rutherford Institute’s letter to the Houston City Council is at www.rutherford.org.