New Orleans Police Appear to Use Surveillance to Initiate Investigations
By Mike Hayes, The Appeal
In late January, New Orleans police officer April Augustine watched Raymond Robinson as the 26-year-old got out of his Volkswagen Beetle carrying a small package in his left hand.
But Augustine was not at the scene. She was inside the city’s Real Time Crime Center, where footage from a sprawling system of more than 400 surveillance cameras hanging from telephone poles and business awnings feed to screens monitored 24/7 by civilian employees in the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness who are tasked with spotting crime.
The officer surveilled Robinson as he climbed into another man’s vehicle and exited without the package he removed from his trunk. Robinson then crossed the street and walked into a corner store. Believing that she had observed a drug transaction, Augustine placed a call to officers Brandon Abadie and Darius McFarland who were patrolling nearby.
Minutes later, the officers walked Robinson out of the store in handcuffs and sat him on the curb. In the police report, they noted that they observed “vegetation” on Robinson’s pants that appeared to be marijuana. Next, the officers called the K-9 unit to search his car. After the sniffing dog indicated it detected something, police searched Robinson’s vehicle and found drugs. He was then hit with multiple felony drug possession charges.
The Robinson case falls apart
On March 28, Robinson entered a not guilty plea in the case. He was then jailed at the Orleans Justice Center as he awaited trial. But on May 8, Robinson’s case took a dramatic turn when a judge ruled to suppress all the evidence against him. In her motion to suppress, Robinson’s attorney, Lauren Sapp of the Orleans Public Defenders office, claimed that police unlawfully searched his vehicle. The core of Sapp’s argument was that the officers did not observe Robinson committing a crime, so they had no right to take him into custody and search his car.
“Police are not allowed to guess,” Sapp told The Appeal. “They need reasonable suspicion, they need actual indicators of criminal activity. There was nothing to support that Mr. Robinson was engaging in anything criminal. At the time when Mr. Robinson was approached and handcuffed by police, he was guilty only of driving, sitting, standing, walking, and being Black at the same time.”
In his ruling, the judge stated that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest Robinson because “reasonable suspicion did not exist to support [Robinson] had committed a crime,” and ordered the evidence against him be suppressed.
“This court certainly recognizes that the police are allowed to approach anyone at anytime and engage in conversation. This is not what happened,” the judge wrote. “In this case the police entered [the store] and immediately grabbed and handcuffed the defendant and escorted him outside the store.”
The state opposed the judge’s ruling. In their response to the motion to suppress, prosecutors from the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office argued that police had the authority to call the K-9 unit, and after the dogs indicated they smelled something inside the car, they had probable cause to search the vehicle. The prosecutors appealed the decision to the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. But the higher court sided with the judge.
Following the denial by the appeals courts, Orleans Parish prosecutors made one final effort to get the judge’s decision overturned at the Louisiana Supreme Court. They lost again and the evidence remained suppressed. On May 21, the Orleans DA’s office dropped all the charges against Robinson.
The DA’s office declined to comment for this article. In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the New Orleans Police Department said, “NOPD does not oversee the Real Time Crime Center cameras.” The spokesperson referred all questions about the crime cameras to the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Sapp told The Appeal that what happened in the Robinson case was “nothing new,” adding that the cameras “have already been found to violate the constitutional rights of many clients our office has represented.”
“By virtue of their placement, the cameras function as a panopticon focusing its gaze on our most vulnerable communities, primarily those with predominantly African American and low-income residents,” she said.