Houston Passes Ordinance Forcing Businesses To Install Cameras, Provide Warrantless Access To Recordings

from the fighting-crime-by-oppressing-citizens dept

Citing a post-pandemic shutdown surge in violent crime and some other shaky reasoning, the city council of Houston, Texas has decided the time has come to violate the rights of business owners. Here’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown for Reason:

Officials in Houston, Texas, have voted to require an array of businesses—including bars, convenience stores, and strip clubs—to install surveillance cameras and make footage from them readily available to police. The dystopian move is a transparently unconstitutional attempt by city leaders to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

To access video from the cameras, police officers will not need a warrant.

Here’s how the city council justifies its decision to increase the expenses of some Houston business owners while simultaneously eliminating their Fourth Amendment rights.

The City Attorney and Chief of Police for the Houston Police Department recommend that City Council approve an Ordinance amending Chapter 28 of the Code of Ordinances to add a new Article XXI, containing Sections 28-671 through 673, and to add a new Section 28-411.

As background, the City of Houston has experienced an increase of violent crimes due to the pandemic, social anxiety and economic uncertainty, open carry law and a strained criminal justice system resulting in a criminal backlog of cases. The City of Houston Code of Ordinances does not currently require that owners and operators of bars, nightclubs, sexually oriented businesses, convenience stores, and game rooms provide exterior video coverage of their buildings.

The first paragraph makes it clear no businesses were asking for this imposition, despite also being victims (directly or indirectly) of the increase in violent crimes.

The second paragraph provides a list of several possible contributors to this crime rate increase, none of which will be addressed by this new law. The pandemic, social anxiety, and economic uncertainty go ignored. The open carry law, passed in late 2021 and opposed by many Texas law enforcement agencies, may be a contributing factor but the law has not been in place long enough to assess its contribution to Houston crime rates. And the “strained justice system” is something Houston has apparently dealt with for more than a half-decade without making any progress.

The solution to a bunch of problems that seem unrelated to the targeted businesses is to make the businesses pay for the proposed solution while eliminating part of their rights. It’s a pretty heavy ask from the city.

The purpose of the proposed amendment to Chapter 28, Miscellaneous Offenses and Provisions, is to establish a requirement for bars, nightclubs, sexually oriented businesses, convenience stores, and game rooms to install exterior security cameras providing video coverage from the exterior of the building to the property line.  The ordinance lists technical specifications for the cameras, which must operate at all times. The ordinance also requires convenience stores to place lighting, at least six foot-candles in brightness, in any place to which customers are permitted access.  The lighting must be turned on between sunset and sunrise and shall not be directed onto residential properties.

The camera and lighting requirements are to take effect on the 90th day following passage and approval of this ordinance.  Additionally, the ordinance requires that a camera owner or operator store video footage for no less than 30 days, and provide HPD with the footage within 72 hours of a request.

This demand that businesses purchase, maintain, and deploy camera systems that fit these specifications — as well as provide warrantless access to any recordings police express an interest in — is further justified by even more disingenuous statements by the city.

The collaboration between local businesses and law enforcement to leverage technology will prove invaluable in the efforts to better identify and apprehend persons alleged to have committed violent crimes.

“Collaboration” generally means entities working together to achieve a common goal, rather than one entity forcing several other entities to comply with its demands or be subject to $500/day fines.

There is no impact to the fiscal budget or no additional spending authority. 

Well, sure… not when you offload the entire cost to the private sector. It’s easy to limit government spending when you make citizens open their own wallets to purchase government-mandated surveillance equipment.

This new law won’t continue to remain cost-neutral for long. The ACLU has already stated the new law is unconstitutional. So has the Institute for Justice, which has called on the city to ditch the law before it’s enacted. These are the kinds of statements that proceed lawsuits, which will definitely impact the fiscal budget. While certain kinds of businesses are subject to closer regulation, a blanket ordinance that treats a large variety of businesses as contributors to Houston’s crime problem isn’t going to survive a courtroom challenge.

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Comments on “Houston Passes Ordinance Forcing Businesses To Install Cameras, Provide Warrantless Access To Recordings”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'Collaboration', mafia style

Mandatory creation of video, including at businesses where a number of customers would probably rather not have their presence made publicly available, with the video able to be demanded by the police sans warrant at-will and with all the costs paid for by the businesses with penalties for refusal…

Yup, that certainly sounds like a ‘collaboration’ to me, in the same way that the nicely dressed men in suits talking about what a nice business you have are just engaging in a ‘friendly chat’.

hcunn (profile) says:

Re: Depends on who is offering the "friendly chat"

Retailers facing crime against themselves and their customers might find this law useful, to sidestep threats of looting (or worse) if they voluntarily install surveillance or allow cops to access it.

(2) It depends what the surveillance is used for. Solving real crimes and scaring predators away? Harassing honest citizens for victimless offenses? Doing nothing? (more expensive and useless safety-theatre?)

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Actually…

Texas has one of the strongest citizen’s arrests statutes in the nation.

Enforcing a city ordinance does not immunize anyone from arrest kr prosecution when that ordinance conflicts with federal statutes. And the Texas statute that authorizes Texas police to make arrests without an arrest warrant also authorizes ALL persons – they aren’t even required to be citizens – to make arrests for the same reasons and with the same restrictions as police!

A citizen’s arrest for a federal crime is lawful anywhere a citizen’s arrest for a violation of city, county or state law is according to the US Supreme Court (US v. Di Re (1948)), under common law unless there is a superseding statute that modifies common law or even outright forbids arrests. To date, only Georgia and North Carolina have enacted statutes forbidding a citizen’s arrest for a felony.

And speaking of felonies, we have Title 18, Sections 241 & 242 of the US Code. These two statutes define any use of official authority by a public official (a category that includes police officers) to deprive anyone of or retaliate against anyone for the exercise of, any civil, statutory or constitutional right to be a federal crime. How serious a crime c]varies with the circumstances of the violation, from a misdemeanor to a capital crime.

In general, an unarmed official, acting alone (unlikely in a bureaucracy), with no threats of physical violence, commits a misdemeanor (up to a year in prison, up to a $1,000 fine) when they violate Section 242. If there is threat or use of a dangerous weapon, actual injury, or two or more officials work together to violate rights, the offense jumps to a felony (up to 10 years in prison, up to $10,000 fine). But there is also Title 18, Section 924 – the firearms enhancement. Under Section 924 (and accompanying case law), mere possession of a firearm – even if the victim never became aware of the gun during the rights violation – counts as use of a dangerous weapon. So it’s almost unheard of for an on-duty police officer to EVER commit the misdemeanor form of a 242 violation.

So if Houston law enforcement tries to penalize a business for refusing to provide camera footage, there is a very real chance that the officials doing so will be leaving in handcuffs – possibly even police officers in their own handcuffs!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You are thinking to small.
The cops won’t lay a finger on them.
The cops will hassle and arrest customers of establishments who don’t play along.
The city will use the spike in problems to challenge business licenses &/or liquor licenses.
So either they comply or their business goes away 1 way or another.

Its all very legal in a RICO sort of way.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

‘Turns out a lot of your officers are visiting bars and sex-shops on a regular basis. Like nearly all of them and not always when out of uniform. Since we’re already required to create the video and share it on demand we figured, why not give it to any press outlet that wants a peek, you were such big fans of the first two steps I can’t imagine you’d have a problem with the third.’

Bergman (profile) says:


Odds are, the courts would rule it wasn’t a 3rd amendment violation. After all, that’s how they ruled the last time.

Police are not the US Army – even though they meet the definition of a standing army in use when the 3rd amendment was ratified – according to the courts. Since National Guardsmen are also not the US Army, the courts might well rule quartering the Guard in private homes isn’t a 3rd amendment violation either.


ECA (profile) says:

Interesting idea.

HOW about
The police setting up camera systems to cover the Local companies. It wouldnt be to hard.
They could even afford the GOOD/BETTER/BEST camera’s and systems.
It Could also be used as a preventative. It would be in Public areas, and cover MORE then the inside of DARK buildings. 1 well placed Good 4k camera could cover more then 1 business.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well, you know the first time Houston’s finest find they are in the crosshairs of another public disgrace caught on film at some business, the first thing they will do is go demand the film so they can destroy the incriminating evidence before it becomes public.

The cameras likely will work fine, they just won’t be able to find the video coverage for the time in question. Since no warrant is needed, there is no prevention for this type of behavior.

Cory says:

“…to install exterior security cameras providing video coverage from the exterior of the building to the property line.”

Granted, the whole ordinance isn’t quoted here, and I haven’t gone to read the entire thing, but from what is written here, it doesn’t require it to cover anything useful in those areas. Just “from the wall to the property line”.

Mount them at 6 inches height from the ground, pointed so that the very top of the video is the ground at the property line and the video covers nothing but a bunch of feet.

Also, I see no requirement for time, date or location stamps. Police request video, provide a hard drive with the last 6 months of videos as 1 minute long videos, randomly named, and let them figure it out.

TaboToka (profile) says:

They tried to make it well-written

Granted, it is unconstitutional as hell, but it looks like they got someone who has some technical chops to at least put in the big words.

Sec. 28-672. Camera required.
(a) A business subject to the requirements of this article shall have digital high-resolution surveillance cameras sufficient to provide an overall view from the exterior of the building to the property line and each camera shall be placed in consultation with HPD. Each camera shall display the date and time of the recording. The camera must be capable of providing a digital image with a minimum resolution of two megapixels, a minimum aspect ratio of 1920 horizontal pixels by 1080 vertical pixels, and a minimum frame rate of 30 frames per second. The camera shall have Wide Dynamic Range capabilities. The camera shall be capable of exporting video footage in a non-proprietary MPEG-4 format.

Just because something is capable, doesn’t mean it must be set, does it? “But officer, I was trying to save space, so I set it at 320×200.”

Time-shift all the output recording by some random amount and display the date and time “of the recording”.

(b) Each camera shall be maintained in proper working order at all times. Each camera shall be operating at all times, including hours when the facility is not open for business.

Is “proper working order” defined? I think I need to moisturize the lens with some Vaseline to keep it from cracking or something.

(c) The owner shall, within 72 hours of a request, provide digital color video footage in connection with crime investigations to the police department.

I will be printing them on 8 1/2 x 11 glossies with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back. Expect a UHaul to arrive in three days.

(d) The owner or operator shall maintain a library of the recorded digital footage for not less than 30 days.

I’m going to mix in the soundtrack to lolita while I’m at it.

(e) A business subject to the requirements of this article shall have posted at all public exits and entrances signs or decals indicating that surveillance cameras are in use.


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Paul B says:

Re: Woha

Reading this, They are 1 step away from simply telling store owners where to put the cameras via some board. But some things really stand out.

Each camera shall be maintained in proper working order at all times.

Now if a thug wants to mess with a store owner, just smashing a camera is enough to put the hurt on them. Like we’re talking at all times, day or night, does the owner need a full set of backups? What if the thug is caught bashing the camera on camera?

There are way to many ways to abuse this line that we’ve already seen NYC cops try.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Or better yet, break into the computer network where the footage is stored, and erase it all.

Easier to destroy evidence, instead of smashing the camera. Just use one of a number of disk utilities to securely wipe your hard disk to oblierate any evidence that you broke into the network.

And then you use Tor, combined with a VPN so that you cannot be traced.

I do that whenever I post anything that might interest any LEO, becuase they can get the IP address you came in from by breaking into the database backend and getting the metadata.

The Feds could do that here, and Mike would never detect the Feds’ presence in his database, because MySQL, and other server level database servers have no logging.

That is why I recommend hiding your IP address here, or anywhere else you post, so that you can’t be traced.

VPN and Tor together will give you double protection.


Anonymous Coward says:

As background, the City of Houston has experienced an increase of violent crimes due to […] open carry law and a strained criminal justice system resulting in a criminal backlog of cases.

Off mike, city council members were caught saying, “we would get lynched changing open carry law in the city, and taking care of the judicial backlog would cost us money, so nah… But hey, we can ADD to the backlog by catching more crooks! And that would look good on our records!”

Anonymous Coward says:

If those cameras are wifi based, which many are, just carry a portable Wifi jammer, if you don’t want to be recorded, so the camers is jammed.

Wifi jammers are not illegal in the United States.

There are other forms of jamming that are also legal.

One example is one gas station that jams bluetooth so that if the bad guys put a bluetooth based credit card skimmer into a gas pump, the bluetooth signal will be jammed, and the bad guys won’t be able to get their data.

I ran into one of those recently in Reno. When I went to a McDonalds the bluetooth in my car died, and there are a couple of gas stations nearby. When I drove out of the area, my bluetooth came back, so one or more of the gas stations are jamming Bluetooth to protect themselves from credit card skimming devices

They have a right to protect their property by jamming Bluetooth. Nobody, including the FCC, can take that right away from them.

Otherwise it would infringe upon the private property rights,

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