Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Ethel Julien on Friday ruled against the city of New Orleans in a public records lawsuit over its growing surveillance program, ordering the city to turn over records showing the locations of hundreds of crime cameras it has installed since 2017.
The ACLU of Louisiana and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the suit in February on behalf of Laura Bixby, a New Orleans public defender. Last year, the city denied Bixby’s public records request for a map of publicly visible crime cameras.
“Today’s ruling is a win for transparency and our justice system as a whole,” said Katie Schwartzmann, ACLU of Louisiana legal director, in a press release. “By stonewalling requests for these public records, the City of New Orleans tilted the scales of justice against the accused and tried to keep its crime camera locations secret.”
Bixby asked for the records in August, not long after she obtained crime-camera footage of a June 2018 drug bust where her client, Clint Carter, was arrested. She said the information could prove valuable in criminal defense, possibly providing a path to finding exonerating evidence for her clients.
In a letter responding to Bixby’s request, the City Attorney’s Office said camera location records were exempt from disclosure under state law because they are related to terrorism prevention.
But the civil rights groups argued that the exemption did not apply because the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness — which manages the camera network and the city’s surveillance hub, the Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center — was not using the cameras for terrorism prevention. Rather, it was handing footage over to the New Orleans Police Department for routine criminal investigations. The city was also using the network to provide street flooding information to the Department of Public Works or to report traffic jams to EMS drivers, the groups argued.
In her ruling, Julien agreed that one provision of the law shielding certain law enforcement records did not apply to the Office of Homeland Security because it is not a law enforcement agencies.
“NOHSEP is a City department in charge of planning and coordinating various emergency and disaster relief responses,” she wrote. “It manages the Real Time Crime Center and coordinates emergency responses. It is not a police department. It neither investigates nor prosecutes crimes.”
Another part of the law specifically shielding records “containing security procedures, criminal intelligence information pertaining to terrorist-related activity” likewise doesn’t apply.
“There is no evidence that NOHSEP is a subsidiary of the [federal] Department of Homeland Security or that the publically-visible cameras are used in the prevention of terrorism,” she wrote.
It was not clear on Monday if the city will comply with the ruling or if it will appeal. Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.