Should You Really Register Your Security Camera With The Police?

To register or not to register your home security surveillance system, that is the question. With home security and surveillance systems becoming more ubiquitous all the time, the police now want you to register your camera with the department.  I heard Des Moines police Sgt. Paul Parizek this morning on the radio expounding on all of the virtues of this new registration system on my drive to the office. Its voluntary he says, the police will never force you to provide your footage he claims, it simply allows them to quickly access evidence if a crime is committed in your neighborhood.  Heck why wouldn’t you help your community solve crimes?

Ahh, but as Lee Corso might say on college gameday, Not so fast!! What are the potential problems or concerns with carte blanche access to video of your property.  Well, there are several things you may want to consider before you register with the new WatchDSM program. Before I detail them, however, I’d like to give a brief reminder of the perspective from which I write, as I will be pointing out that the rest of the information you have heard on this program is from the DM police department.  (I always recommend investigating the background or perspective of anyone giving advice or opinions, lest you believe what the news tells you and find out it wasn’t the whole story! But I digress… )

I am a civil trial lawyer.  I work with and for families who have suffered profound trauma or loss in their lives. My partners do criminal trial work and I certainly know their perspective as well, but mine is unique.  The police and I are typically on the same side.  I represent victims of wrongdoing, with such wrongdoing often then being the subject of police investigations.  In turn, the police often aid in our investigation of the wrongdoing and even testify for me in court on a regular basis.  Additonally, I have had the pleasure and honor of representing numerous police officers and their families when they have been the victims of accidents or other wrongdoing. The police officers I have represented have been some of the finest human beings with whom I have had the privilege of working.

On the other hand, my partners have had the unfortunate experience to deal with some of the minority of law enforcement who are not as virtuous.  In some instances, they have witnessed police officers misrepresent facts in reports or in court.  In the worst circumstances, some lawyers in our office have experienced officers outright lie.  This is not representative of law enforcement in general in my opinion. The exception should certaintly not be viewed to exemplify the profession.  However, it does occur. So when Sgt Parizek claims that the footage will never be used for any improper purpose, he makes such claims with the presumption that all officers will utilize the video ethically.  While his perspective is not necessarily unreasonable, there are certainly exceptions.

For example, what if police contacted you after you registered your home security camera with WatchDSM.  What harm could there be in letting the police simply access your whole system?  Well, let’s say it stores video footage from the last 30 days.  And let’s say your 20 year old lived with you during the summer before he returned to college 25 days ago.  Unbeknownst to you, he had a buddy over and they each drank one beer on your porch while you were at dinner one night.    Big deal?  Maybe to some, not to others.  But technically probably a crime.  An overzealous young officer wanting to impress his superiors with an extra collar could charge your child even though you were simply trying to help support local law enforcement.  Is that right?  Not for me to judge necessarily but, legally justifiable?  Probably.

Or what if your wife simply let the dog out back, which is shielded by trees, but covered by your surveillance system… while in her underwear, or less?  Would most officers watch that footage while reviewing the rest for the alleged cime?  Probably not.  But an unscrupulous few? Possibly.

Sgt. Parizek says they won’t force you to give it to them. Really? Once you register it they know you have it and can subpoena it.  Subpoena power affords them the ability to force you to give it to them whether you want to or not. And some surveillance is simply the front door, but some is inside and out. Will they review footage that might contain very private matters if the evidence is only of a porch pirate?  Hopefully not but what is to stop them? My partners have had police surveillance systems surreptitiously record their privileged conversations with their clients and then had prosecutors turn around and try to use those privileged communications against someone.  What if you a have a conversation in your living room with your lawyer, or your wife, or your minister, all of which are legally privileged, that is caught on your own surveillance system?  Would they use it against you?  Prosecutors have tried before.

And how long will they keep footage of your home?  Where will they keep it? Will that video of your wife in her underwear be destroyed? Locked in a vault? Be kept on some of the police computers? Some officers’ phones?  Will they catalog it or otherwise use information about your home for data collection?  What if you spank your child?  Is that child abuse?  Would they share that with DHS? Would they share your private footage with other law enforcement if asked?  What if the ACLU makes an open records request for the footage which contains sensitive or private personal video of you or your family?  Can they protect it?  Would they?

The point of this blog is not to advise you whether or not to participate in WatchDSM.  That is up to you.  The point is to make sure you sufficiently and thoughtfully consider the implications.  Anytime the government is afforded or takes additional power, that power has the possibility of being abused. And almost every time, it eventually is.  Has the NSA turned its initially just and necessary covert surveillance of enemies, towards its own US citizens?  The ACLU says yes.   Will the Des Moines Police Department?  I hope not.  Sgt Parizek says no.  I believe he probably believes that. But is that hope enough to give the police carte blanche view of my home, inside and out? Probably not for me.  Is it for you?

-Cory F. Gourley