Look out for vandals

Penny CluteThe Law and You

It’s that time of year again.

School is starting; many people are eager and looking forward with excitement. Plattsburgh residents of the Center City area feel dread, instead.

Their homes are on the corridor walked by students coming from the bars downtown, back to the college.

Along the way, they are loud, disturbing the quiet of the residential neighborhood. They may leave their empty beer cups on the ground. Some damage property as they pass, breaking pots of flowers, for example, or other yard decorations. Some steal, even going up on porches and taking objects.

Unless the person behaving this way is caught in the act, they will probably get away with it. The damage or theft may be clear, but how do the police figure out who did it? The police cannot be everywhere, and they no longer have the pro-active bike patrols watching the city streets. They must rely on complaints from civilians. Many times there are no eye-witnesses. When someone does call the police, they may not be willing to identify themselves. What can be done?

There can be no arrest or prosecution without evidence. To identify the culprit, the police must have something to go on. A basic description is a start: What did you see? Was the person alone, or with others? Can you describe what they looked like, or what they were wearing? Could you hear what was said? Your observations of what you saw and heard can be a great help; it can give the police an opening, a line of investigation. Maybe there were more similar incidents up the street from you along the same timeline. Putting it all together can help build a case.

What can make an immense difference is if there is a video or audio recording. Then it is more than only your words, trying to describe what you saw in the dark. If you are awake and can do this safely, then take some photos or do a video. You don’t have to stay up all night to watch if you have a home security system with a camera on your porch or yard, your “digital witness.”

Is it triggered by sound? By movement? Does it have an accurate time stamp? How long does it save the recording? It is great if your system scared them out of your yard; maybe it also recorded a person carrying something that could have been stolen from a neighbor. Or maybe the group damaged property after passing your home. Your security system’s recording can be valuable evidence. It can help identify the thief or vandal, and it can document what was taken or damaged. It can also show what direction they went in after your house.

It is common to have home security systems. It is legal to take video of people outside your home, like in your yard or porch, or on the adjacent public sidewalk and street. There is no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in these spaces. To be extra cautious about this, you can post a sign that notifies people that there is video and audio surveillance of your property. This might also have the effect of deterring misbehavior.

If you decide to have a camera on your property, make sure that it always displays an accurate time stamp, and that it corrects itself twice a year when we go on and off daylight savings time. Get a system that is high-definition with good color, and which will make quality images in low light, since you will be using it at night. Think about where to install cameras so they are most likely to capture faces.

New York has slightly different laws regarding audio recordings, compared to video. We are what is called a “one-consent state.” This means that one party to an in-person or telephone conversation can record it without the knowledge of another party. So, if you are talking to someone, you can legally record it. Even if you are not in the conversation, if they are speaking so loudly that someone not part of the conversation can hear, they have no reasonable expectation or privacy, and you can record it.

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