NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Orleans Public Defender’s Office and the American Civil Liberties Union are praising a judge’s ruling that will give them unprecedented access to crime camera locations and footage.
While the cameras often help put criminals behind bars, they can also be useful in keeping the wrong people out of jail. However, not everyone had access to the more than 500 cameras scattered throughout the streets of New Orleans -- a fact the public defender’s office took issue with, including Laura Bixby, a lawyer with OBD who initiated a lawsuit against the city.
“If police are using this against them, our clients should also have a right to use it to prove their innocence,” Bixby said.
The lawsuit sought to gain access to the locations of all of the city’s crime cameras.
“If our client is telling us there’s an alibi and they were located somewhere else in the city, we couldn’t have known if there was a camera at that intersection, and we could have proven our client was there without a map of these cameras,” Bixby said.
Now, a judge has ruled that the city must provide the camera locations, a move that some defense attorneys said could lead to defendant exonerations, and both the ACLU and the public defenders office said would allow them to cut costs at a time when their budgets are hurting.
The OPD’s chief public defender Derwyn Bunton said the city’s unwillingness to provide that information came as a surprise.
“We found it funny that the city fought as hard a it did, because the locations aren’t all that secret," Bunton said. “They are big flashing cameras.”
The ACLU joined in on the lawsuit, which was fought by the city, in part, because of concerns over terrorism -- an argument ACLU’s legal director Katie Schwartzmann found puzzling.
“These cameras were sold to the public as a crime prevention method, they’ve never been referenced as an anti-terrorism tool,” Schwartzmann said.
While the ACLU still has concerns and said the litigation may not be over yet, some New Orleans residents said the surveillance tools make them feel safer. Jason Raymond lives in the Esplanade Ridge neighborhood and said he absolutely loves them.
“It’s a warning to criminals to stay out of the neighborhood,” Raymond said, standing underneath one of the flashing cameras in Esplanade Ridge. “Every criminal should know where the cameras are, and there should be a camera everywhere there’s a criminal."
The cameras are also helpful to the public defender’s office because the evidence is often so clear, that it motivates them to reach quick settlements.
“We also have camera video that inculpates our clients, and it shortens the life of a case,” Bunton said.
Bunton said this might free them up to tackle other cases, and that the growing network of city and privately owned cameras could be used by both prosecutors and the defense.
Though the ACLU praised the use of crime camera footage where it can be used to exonerate some defendants, the organization said it still has larger concerns about invasion of privacy issues. In addition to the 402 city owned cameras, there are another 125 private cameras, now tied into the city’s crime camera network, which are often monitored in real-time.
FOX 8 reached out to the city to see if they would appeal the crime camera decision, but have not heard back.