Ben Franklin once said any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security deserves neither and will lose both. This comes to mind when considering the new license plate readers and surveillance camera granted to the village of Saugerties, to be installed in early July. Why no public hearing on this sensitive topic?
Speaking with Police Chief Joe Sinagra, I was told that the town is not obligated to have a public hearing since this is a grant and not a change in any law. But just because there is no requirement for public comment does not mean they should get a pass on a sensitive subject like video surveillance.
License plate readers, more cameras. Where will it end?
When cameras are installed by Walmart or a mall parking lot we are not as alarmed. But when cameras are installed by government entities, we become suspicious. Chief Sinagra states that license plate readers have been around a long time and are instrumental in fighting crime via a database that transmits information about vehicles involved in crimes traveling through our town. He said that it is not the intention of his department to use these devices as tools to monitor townspeople but to alert law enforcement if a vehicle passes through that was involved in a crime. He claims that the recorded license plate numbers are run through a database that is shared with all of Ulster County, and can often be shared nationally to monitor the whereabouts of a vehicle registered to offenders involved in violent crimes. Chief Sinagra agreed that there is potential for misuse of this system, and that any citizen can be tracked, but he claims there are policies and procedures in place that make this type of surveillance unlikely.
But to law abiding citizens, using cameras to record license plates revealing our whereabouts and personal information is a form of search. Didn’t the Founding Fathers protect us against illegal searches by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution? “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…”
I raised this point with Chief Sinagra. He didn’t agree that the Fourth Amendment protects us from video surveillance, citing an overrule of this right by the Supreme Court. I pointed out that the Fourth Amendment includes “effects,” which includes a car. He argued that the inside of a car is considered personal effects but the streets are public domain. According to the chief, filming on public roads is like videotaping a storefront, which is perfectly legal. I pointed out that anyone on the street does not have access to the information that the license plate contains, and when the government is watching us, it is highly intrusive, and many Saugerties residents agree.
I know that Chief Sinagra has done a good job fighting crime in our community, and has good intentions for the safety of the people. But someday, when Chief Sinagra retires and another chief takes the helm, the potential for abuse remains under the jurisdiction of a new authority. But what happens if we decide to videotape a police officer on the street when they pull us over for a traffic violation? Whether within your legal rights or not, police do not like being videotaped. Nothing upsets an officer more than being filmed in action. The chief’s definition makes it perfectly legal to film any officer that is on a public street, park, or sidewalk, or approaching a person or vehicle. If we have nothing to hide we should be in agreement with being filmed, the authorities assert, so that must stand true for the police as well. They use the excuse that we are safer with video cameras watching us, but when we tape police officers or government officials to determine whether they are functioning within the confines of the law, they don’t like it one bit. If they have nothing to hide, police officers should have no problem with a video camera aimed at them, either.
The police department was given $50,000 of federal grant money for these surveillance devices. But remember, nothing is free, and government grants are a method used for submission to an agenda by dangling a carrot of cash. In return we are surrendering our freedoms. I’m all for reasonable law enforcement, but the question begs: Must we all submit to giving up our rights as U.S. citizens so that the police have an easier task to do their jobs? An additional video camera is planned at the corner of Russell and Partition to supplement the two already in play at Main and Partition, and Market and Partition, along with the new license plate readers. Public opposition to the cameras is reported as minimal, but there has been no opportunity to object.
The consequences of continuous government surveillance of Saugerties citizens is a slippery slope. People need to mobilize, rally the troops and demand a public hearing before the police are allowed to monitor law-abiding citizens in public. Is this George Orwell’s “1984” coming to fruition? Let’s make our voices heard before there is no chance to object to this.