Property Rights in the Hurtt Locker?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Houston's police chief, who was apparently the last man in town to notice that importing busloads of thugs from New Orleans might cause an increase in the crime rate, has decided to show his detractors once and for all that he is no one-trick pony. Chief Hurtt recently showed that his grasp of the concept of property rights is no less slippery than his grasp of causality (or at least of his duty to inform the public that a certain group of people may be committing lots of crime).

Houston's police chief on Wednesday proposed placing surveillance cameras in apartment complexes, downtown streets, shopping malls and even private homes to fight crime during a shortage of police officers.

"I know a lot of people are concerned about Big Brother, but my response to that is, if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?" Chief Harold Hurtt told reporters Wednesday at a regular briefing.


Building permits should require malls and large apartment complexes to install surveillance cameras, Hurtt said. And if a homeowner requires repeated police response, it is reasonable to require camera surveillance of the property, he said. [bold added]
The story goes on to cite concerns that the cameras would be used for unreasonable searches (a valid and important point) and their cost (a nonessential), but completely misses a very important additional point: Forcing people to install such surveillance cameras on their own property would violate their property rights. Fortunately, Mayor Bill White, though not likely great champion of property rights in this context, does at least seem a little more deliberate than the Chief: "[White] called the chief's proposal a 'brainstorm' rather than a decision."

On the privacy/unreasonable search issues: I do not by any stretch hold myself out as an expert on the "right to privacy", if there really is such a thing. (And would welcome any reader suggestions for a good, short introduction to the topic intended for laymen. I only joke about being a trial lawyer, after all.) Nevertheless, I do find myself highly suspicious of government efforts to place ordinary citizens under surveillance when there is no suspicion of criminal activity because of the obvious potential for abuse.

This concern about government-run surveillance equipment does not mean that surveillance cameras in apartment complexes are in and of themselves a bad thing-- so long as they are monitored by private parties and those on the premises know in advance that they are being monitored. This would reduce the potential for abuse by (1) giving people the chance to avoid the premises entirely (The reach of a prying or abusive landowner ends at his property line. This is yet another reason the government, for which no such restrictions would apply, should not be in the business of watching private citizens.) and (2) having the government available to protect against the unscrupulous use of such equipment. Such equipment could also aid law enforcement in that when there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, some of the necessary surveillance apparatus might already be in place, and could be manned or monitored by law enforcement on a strictly ad hoc basis. I presume that this would require a warrant.

In any event, I have to say that my opinion of my city's police chief drops like a rock every time I hear him open his mouth.

-- CAV


(1) My thanks to the Resident Egoist for pointing out this article.

(2) Related: Paul Hsieh of Noodle Food discusses privacy rights and private surveillance a bit in this post on a privately-filmed incident on a subway that was subsequently circulated on the Internet. I found this bit particularly helpful.

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