January 4, 2011

Car Cameras Coming To California

This Saturday, it became legal to operate a vehicle equipped with a "video event recorder." These have already been in use in some police vehicles, and are expected to be adopted first by public transportation agencies, and then gradually by other users. Inevitably, people will want them in their cars -- or rather, their insurance companies will, and that will induce them to offer a discount on insurance for customers who have video event recorders.

What do these devices do? As explained to the Legislature:
Video event recorders for vehicles capture high definition videos, both of the front of the vehicle and the rear, using a dual camera device and record when an event occurs, including accidents or aggressive driving behavior.  The videos are stored on internal memory together with other information such as G-force values, GPS coordinates, date, time, and more.
So that means that when you have a collision, the video event recorder will have all of this information available for download. So bill passed out of the Legislature with nought more than a peep of opposition, and became operative on the new year.

If a vehicle equipped with these devices is involved in a collision, it will provide data that would be immensely useful for determining liability. That much is obvious. What may be a little less obvious is that it would also be very useful for determining damages -- because it would record the strength of the impact in G-force, as well as enable determination of the vectors. Inflation of strength-of-impact testimony would therefore be easy to detect with this data.

Of course, the uses of such a device by law enforcement don't stop there. A police enforcement vehicle equipped with a video device of this nature could easily record evidence of speeders. While the Legislature's analysis of the device does not include "speed" as a data point recorded by the device, that such information would be recorded ought to be obvious. It could be determined by tracking the amount of time it takes for a stationary roadside object to move through a frame of the camera's shot anyway.

It would be no great leap to integrate a LIDAR device with one of these things and mount it in a police vehicle, and set it out on the road to look for speeders. If that police vehicle were not clearly marked in traditional black-and-white enforcement colors, readily-identifiable by the top-mounted emergency lights, and branded with police insignia, then people would zoom right on by it, and have their license plates and faces captured on camera with LIDAR tracking their speed. At any time. Any other vehicle on the road might be a police speed enforcement vehicle and that means that every time you zoomed by another vehicle, you would be at risk for a ticket.

This would result in a myriad of new tickets. When I have to drive in to Los Angeles, I routinely set my cruise control at or just above the speed limit. In the forty-mile drive, I am passed by literally hundreds of cars. A Highway Patrol vehicle behaving in such a fashion could generate hundreds of tickets an hour.

And there are already hundreds of traffic cameras deployed along freeways, highways, and parkways across the state. More are coming. Right now, they are primarily used for monitoring traffic flow. But it wouldn't take a computer whiz all that long to set up a system to coordinate the video from the stationary roadside cameras with data from police-mounted recording devices.

The ACLU has raised invasion-of-privacy issues here. But I think they're not on strong ground to do so. This is not a particularized search of an individual (which as a general rule ought to be done only pursuant to a warrant or other probable cause).  It is a generalized monitoring of activities and behavior done in a public place. When you're out in public, people can see you. You have no reasonable expectation of privacy while driving a car on a public road.

Now, there are additional things that might happen. Police vehicles equipped with these devices would record what happened before, during, and after an enforcement stop was made. They would record things like how the vehicle was behaving -- was it speeding, was it really weaving around in traffic, was it really being driven "erratically"? That would inform things like probable cause hearings and possibly lead to exclusion of evidence. If the police engaged in physical abuse of a detainee or other civil rights violations, it would record those things happening, too.

Some police officers turn out to be rather touchy about cameras recording their activities, and perhaps for good reason because sometimes those cameras record questionable police activity.  Such police officers get very little sympathy from me, just as the speeders above get very little sympathy from me. The speeders are committing crimes and endangering public safety. Police who engage in civil rights abuses are also committing crime and undermining public trust in authority. Video evidence can potentially cut either way in such a situation, and is often ambiguous, but it provides additional information.

Those officers who might be tempted to step over the line could well find themselves deterred from doing so if they knew that their activities would be recorded and subject to discovery later. Would that mean that they would not enforce the law at all, allowing criminals to go unpunished? I rather doubt it personally -- but better that a criminal go free than that an innocent person be imprisoned; better that the police are too cautious about using their power than too enthusiastic to do so.

What's the dark side to cameras and black boxes recording everything that happens on the road? The ACLU is right that there would be a diminishment of privacy. A trip to the adult bookstore or to participate in an extramarital tryst -- activities which are not illegal but are embarrassing -- would become a less private affair, one which one's spouse and family, employers, and potentially one's voter's might learn about. Is that a bad thing? You'll have to make that call, I won't go that far. I suspect that the data thus recorded would become like any other kind of electronic information -- subject to discovery and judicial weighing of the value of the contents against the privacy and Constitutional concerns.

It's a brave new world out there. You should start reacting to it by observing the speed limit.

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