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Is Houston's Requiring Surveillance Video Unconstitutional?

A new Houston ordinance requires some local establishments to record constant video surveillance outside their premises on the police’s behalf, and to give recordings to police without requiring a warrant. It’s the first major city to enact such a sweeping rule, which civil rights advocates are calling unconstitutional, according to Bloomberg. The ordinance, which requires some businesses to install adequate outdoor lighting, took effect in July as part of One Safe Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s citywide public safety push. The five categories of local establishment targeted by Houston law includes bars, nightclubs, “sexually oriented” businesses, gambling rooms and convenience stores. Business owners must pay for their own technology and 30-day data storage services. Those that fail to install cameras that record 24/7, or refuse to hand over requested footage within 72 hours of police asking for it, can be fined up to $500 daily.

The initiative includes a suite of investments in measures like mental health support, a gun buyback program, domestic violence response teams and additional police overtime. The mandatory security camera provision has drawn the attention of civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which argue that the ordinance may violate Houstonians’ constitutional protections against search and seizure. Other critics cite research showing that video cameras aren’t an effective crime prevention tool, and say that the policy places unfair financial costs on small business owners. Houston police have not said whether the law has been enforced yet. Some studies have shown that security cameras decrease crime in parking garages, reduce vehicle theft, and deter property crime within 100 feet of camera locations. Other research suggests that the devices have minimal effect on crime rates. Police say that access to security cameras and other surveillance devices help them build cases, track offenders and make arrests more efficiently. In Houston, privacy advocates are concerned that the footage captured by cameras could be used to criminalize residents of neighborhoods where bars and convenience stores are concentrated, or investigate people with no connection to violent crime, such as abortion-seekers who are restricted from seeking care.


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