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Using Traffic Cameras to Fight Crime

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

As if red light cameras on intersections weren't controversial enough (they're not valid; yes they are; no they're not), at least one Pennsylvania town is planning on using traffic cameras for crime control.

Hazleton, PA will soon link all of its traffic cameras along a central street to city hall, giving police on-demand access to the video. While residents may think the use of cameras to fight crime is necessary, is it legal?

Hazleton officials already admitted they will not use the cameras for normal traffic violations. Instead, police will use have access to go back and review recorded footage in order to help solve crimes, much like officers can link to surveillance cameras of local shops and stores.

Most people would think this would constitute one long search by the police and fall under the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure. However, because the recordings are of a public place where people have no expectation of privacy, they are almost definitely constitutional. After all, hidden cameras in public and even nanny cams are legally OK, so these non-hidden, public cameras probably will be as well.

Just because this surveillance is legal, doesn't mean it won't raise some issues and some privacy advocates' hackles. The ACLU has been vocal in their opposition to public video surveillance, and our own Mark Wilson noted that, compared to the days when the Supreme Court had to decide whether a bugged pay phone violated privacy rights, surveillance is different today:

Technology exists today that's just as ubiquitous as the telephone was in the 1960s, but today's technology is far more amenable to surveillance than a pay phone. Each of us is surveilled every day in some fashion, whether it's physically through traffic cameras, electrically through our cellphones' GPS signals, or virtually through cookies that remember where we've been on the Internet and advertise at us accordingly.

With so many of us voluntarily giving information that permits surveillance, can we really argue when the police use video footage of public places to try and solve crimes?

UPDATE: A previous version of this article misspelled the town of Hazleton, and implied the city was using red light cameras. The cameras to be used are traffic cameras installed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). 

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