With 10 "deaths by train" so far in 2011, Caltrain has looked into mounting cameras on locomotives that will capture the tragic events. But First Amendment concerns have caused a delay in implementation.
Officials approved the plan, but might change their minds if video footage of suicides would become public record as they might be, according to First Amendment experts.
It's still not entirely certain if footage of on-track Caltrain deaths -- such as the death Thursday night of a 23-year old Palo Alto man, struck and killed by a train near Churchill Avenue at 8:40 p.m. -- could be released to the public if the transit agency goes forward with the camera plan, accordng to reports.
Caltrain's board approved a $1.5 million contract with Railhead Corp to install outward-facing cameras on the fronts and backs of trains, according to the Bay Citizen. But the contract is on hold until Caltrain talks with its lawyers to see if the videos would be releasable.
Thus far this year, 10 people have died on the tracks. Eleven died last year.
"We want to look at … whether the video recordings will be public record," Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said, according to multiple reports. "We need to do some research and talk to our legal council to determine what our next steps will be."
Any video captured by the cameras would constitute a public record under state open government laws, according to First Amendment experts interviewed by the Bay Citizen and by Palo Alto Online, even if the videos caught images of someone being struck by trains, according to Terry Francke of Californians Aware. "There's no real exemption from the Public Records Act that focuses on distaste about what people might do with the images," he said, according to Palo Alto Online.
However, there are many Caltrain documents that are not releasable to the public under federal Homeland Security regulations, according to Dunn. Whether or not the on-train cameras would fall under those rules, or under open government rules, remains to be seen.