Grainy footage from an apartment security camera was enough to catch the vague profile of a light sedan racing away from a drive-by shooting that killed 21-year-old Nicole Westbrook last April. The culinary student had just moved to Seattle and was celebrating a night out with her boyfriend in Pioneer Square.
High-resolution footage from nearby red-light cameras in Pioneer Square likely caught the car’s license plate and other identifiers, Seattle police believe, but state law barred detectives from looking at it. Nine months later, no suspects have been identified and the tape already has been erased.
“Basically, they have no idea what happened still,” said Westbrook’s sister, Marcia Lynn Westbrook, who with her family is waiting in New Mexico for new leads in the case.
Though it is too late for traffic-camera footage to help solve her sister’s murder, Marcia Lynn Westbrook said she hopes a proposed state law will allow the release of traffic camera images and video in future criminal investigations. That bill will be introduced in a House hearing Wednesday afternoon before the Public Safety Committee.
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, who helped draft the bill, and Seattle Police Department Deputy Chief Nick Metz will both testify.
“When people think about it for a half-second — that you can use this footage to defend a traffic infraction but not use it in a homicide investigation — it’s ridiculous,” Satterberg said. “We’re trying to solve murder cases here.”
The bill would allow law enforcement to use footage from red-light, speed and toll cameras in criminal cases, but only with a signed search warrant.
Though the bill has bipartisan support, there are opponents.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) doesn’t view use of such footage in criminal investigations as an unconstitutional breach of privacy. But it would enable discomforting and ever-broadening government surveillance, spokesman Doug Honig said.
The more than 130 traffic cameras operated by American Traffic Solutions in Washington state — 34 in Seattle — record 24 hours a day. The company says it keeps the footage about 30 days.
“Even if the intention is good, this bill moves us closer to a surveillance society,” Honig said. Officials promoting it talk about investigating horrific crimes, he said, “but it could be used for all kinds of things including political surveillance.”
He calls the bill “mission creep.” When traffic cameras were first discussed, proponents promised they wouldn’t become a tool for public surveillance, he said.
Satterberg finds the ACLU argument hard to swallow.
“There is no expectation of privacy of your actions when you’re on a public street — never has been,” he said.
Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief Jim Pugel said the mandatory search warrant involved in getting the footage will keep officers from fishing through it to catch random crime.
In other states, traffic-camera footage is used to investigate violent crimes like murder, rape and robbery in hundreds of cases a year, American Traffic Solutions says. In 2012, New Jersey used the material in more than 200 cases and Florida used it in more than 400 cases.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, considers traffic cameras “a travesty used only to collect revenue.” But Hurst, who was a police officer for 25 years said: “If they’re going to be out there, we should be able to file a search warrant and use its footage for a homicide investigation.”