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Off camera: State lawmakers fight invasive videotaping

By Christian Avard | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted December 1, 2006

BRATTLEBORO — It has been a rough summer and fall for residents of the Clark-Canal Street neighborhood.
Troubles began when it was discovered that Paul Canon, a Clark Street resident, had been filming his neighbors — without their permission — from his home for three years. Canon alleges there is a serious drug trafficking problem, and as a result he videotapes activities on his street from inside his home.

He hopes he will catch drug dealing on videotape so the police have evidence. Canon also claims he is documenting illicit activity in his neighborhood.

But residents on Clark Street say otherwise.

Many neighbors claim he is invading their privacy, acting as more of a nuisance rather than a watchdog. But the Brattleboro Police says he’s not breaking any laws: As long as he’s only videotaping from his property.
A Brattleboro Area Community Land Trust four-plex is the primary residence where Canon claims drugs are being sold. It is also adjacent to Canon’s property.

According to The Commons, a Windham County newspaper, tensions increased recently after Canon’s house was paintballed and Canon allegedly threatened neighbor Tina Fioillo, 32, and others who lived in the four-plex.

In recent months, Fiorillo sought every available means to stop Canon’s activities. Aside from the Brattleboro police and town officials, Fiorillo contacted a variety of local, state, and federal officials. For her, the last straw came when a judge sitting in Windham County Superior Court refused to issue a restraining order against Canon.

In July, Fiorillo told the Guardian that she was a target of Canon’s surveillance. “My everyday life of nothing is being videotaped every single day,” she said, tears welling in her eyes as a baby fussed on her lap.

Feeling powerless and struggling with ongoing bouts of depression, Fiorillo recently committed suicide, leaving behind her son Alphonse and her community in tatters.

Shaken by Fiorillo’s suicide was Rep. Darryl Pillsbury, I-Brattleboro, whose district includes the Clark-Canal Street neighborhood.

Upon learning about Fiorillo’s failed efforts, Pillsbury was compelled to act. He is now seeking legislation that could criminalize Canon’s activities. He said legislative staff is currently drafting a bill that would make it illegal for people to use electronic devices to capture, with frequency, other residents’ activities.

“I’m bringing up the bill because we’ve had some problems and there’s been a lot of controversy over this in Brattleboro,” said Pillsbury. “I wanted to have the legislative counsel — our lawyers up in Montpelier — draft something that will still cut the constitutional mustard because I don’t want to trounce on anybody’s toes really. But saying that, I feel like we’ve really got to do something.”

Canon previously told the Guardian that while he is not paid by local police to videotape, they do supply him with VHS-format videotapes. He said he makes several copies of each tape, giving one to the police and keeping a second copy locked in a safe in his home. He said he has stored hundreds of such tapes, shot with two video cameras positioned in the upstairs windows of his Clark Street home and a hand-held camera that he uses downstairs.

Canon said he decided to record the activity on his street after police failed to respond promptly to his phone calls “and then they tell you, ‘We didn’t see it so we can’t do anything,’” he told the Guardian at the time.

Pillsbury, who hosts The Pulse of Brattleboro on the local public access station Brattleboro Community Television, realizes the legal limitations against videotaping may have, but still, believes a solution can be found.

“There are a lot of things we just don’t want to infringe on. I’m thinking if you’re video-taping somebody or something or whatever for over a 24-hour period of time, unless it’s the police, then I’ve got a feeling we’re going to try and put that with harassment or stalking or something like that,” said Pillsbury. “It may stand on its own, but I feel we’re going to try and put it under with harassment and the stalking law. It won’t give it a lot of teeth but it will give it enough to maybe stop this guy.”

Pillsbury is getting some support from other lawmakers. Sen. Dick Sear, D-Bennington, plans to introduce similar legislation in the Senate that will examine whether videotaping should be allowed in municipal buildings.

“There are some things people contacting me about not having policies in [Bennington County] municipal buildings. Some people are concerned about not having any policy about how it was done and who could view the videotapes, etc.,” said Sears. “It’s supposedly for security purposes but can somebody use them for harassing other individuals and stuff like that. There’s just a whole host of things going on.”

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it might be difficult to legislate Canon’s activities.

“The problem is that courts have found you don’t have an expectation of privacy in a public place, but you do in your home,” said Gilbert. “And the question I have about what Paul Canon is doing is where exactly is he filming and what images are being captured, because it has appeared to me that the state law could possibly be used to prevent him from conducting surveillance, if indeed it’s at a place the people in the apartment have a reasonable expectation of privacy and it’s within their home or residence.”

Gilbert also adds that defining what is a private residence may be troublesome as well.

“How do you define home or residence is something that also has to be looked at. Like a porch, do you have a reasonable expectation there? What if you’re filming through a window? Do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy there? I would think so. How about the walk leading to your residence? I kind of doubt it but you’ve got to look at all those issues,” said Gilbert.

Pillsbury and Sears won’t know how these bills will be crafted until the legislative session and are aware these bills will be difficult for legislative council to draft. But for Pillsbury, it all goes back to his community.

“You know, I wish that there would be restraint on people who do this on their own because doing it on their own doesn’t get the results you want. I would just like the community to heal,” he said. “I don’t know if this piece of legislation is going to do that, but if anything maybe we can get it passed it will relieve a lot of people’s tensions in the Clark-Canal Street area, probably not Paul’s but I’m not really doing this for him. I’m doing this for the whole neighborhood and the state if this is a problem elsewhere.”