Sharing the Panopticon

Public defenders say they're being barred from accessing surveillance camera footage that could exonerate the innocent

When two airline workers were robbed at 14th and Mission streets last August, the victims called 911 and described their attackers to the dispatcher as a pair of African American males.

At the time, several groups of people stood two blocks away at the always manic intersection of 16th and Mission streets, a high-crime area where the city installed four public surveillance cameras as part of an ongoing pilot project that began in 2005.

Police nabbed two suspects there whom they believed fit the description, and the victims later identified the duo as their attackers. Case closed. Except for one problem: the suspects claimed they were standing at 16th and Mission streets the whole time and never ventured two blocks away, to where the robbery occurred.

So a deputy public defender, Eric Quandt, tried to obtain footage from the city's controversial public safety cameras to confirm their story. He was denied access to it by the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management because, according to the city's Administrative Code, only police officers with a written request can review the recordings.

Other government agencies must get a court order, and since the recordings are held by the city for no more than seven days, by the time defense attorneys realize crucial evidence might exist, it's likely to be long gone.

Mayor Gavin Newsom's expansion of public surveillance cameras across the city has been the subject of regular criticism from privacy advocates who say no substantial evidence exists that they reduce crime or provide valuable evidence to prosecutors. But few imagined Big Brother could serve as an alibi proving someone's whereabouts when police placed the wrong suspect at the scene of a crime.

Quandt managed to get the footage in time after appealing to a police inspector, and 23-year-old Neil Butler and 21-year-old Robert Dillon, who had served 70 days in jail, were freed. However, the city's elected public defender, Jeff Adachi, said there have been almost a dozen or so other instances when his office believed surveillance footage from the cameras could refute a prosecutor's claims, but city officials have barred PDs from accessing it.

"These two men would have faced decades in prison," Adachi told the Guardian, "so I find it shocking that law enforcement would object to the defense obtaining these tapes. It has to be a two-way street."

"[City officials] act as if they have a proprietary right over the footage," added Rebecca Young, the managing attorney for Adachi's felony unit. "We are officers of the court. We should not have to deal with bureaucratic red tape to access and review the footage."

Few cities in the United States have rules in place reguutf8g the use of surveillance footage to begin with, so determining procedures for how defense attorneys might use the cameras to free innocent people once again puts San Francisco on the cutting edge of public policy.

After learning about the robbery case last August, Sup. Gerardo Sandoval decided defense lawyers need access to the recordings if they could be used as evidence to free people wrongfully charged with crimes.

Sandoval's legislation would require the city to preserve the footage for 30 days instead of seven, giving defendants more time to access the footage.

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