RENO, Nev. (AP) - That nosy old woman across the bus aisle may not end up being the only one eavesdropping on conversations on northern Nevada’s largest public transit system.
Washoe County’s Regional Transportation Commission and the union representing its bus drivers are locked in a 2-year-old legal battle over whether expanding the audio reach of surveillance recordings on Reno buses amounts to surreptitious monitoring of passengers.
Lawyers for both sides said in court filings this past week that they don’t see any way to avoid going to trial given their dramatic differences about the proper balance between privacy and security.
Gary Watson, president of Teamsters Local 533, first notified the transportation agency in April 2014 that the new plan its commissioners approved six weeks earlier would violate state law prohibiting “unauthorized, surreptitious intrusion of privacy by the use of listening devices.”
“It is illegal,” he wrote in an email, asserting it also would result in a change of working conditions - a mandatory subject of collective bargaining.
Transit officials argue expanding audio capabilities will enhance a system already proven to be a valuable tool in reducing auto liability and personal injury claims, as well as helping law enforcement looking for missing persons or investigating crimes.
They maintain the decision is theirs alone, but they asked a Washoe District Court judge in December 2014 to issue a declaratory judgment as to whether the union’s claims had any merits.
Citing the potential to infringe on U.S. labor laws, the union had the case moved weeks later to federal court in Reno, where they’ve been arguing ever since.
Regional Transportation Commission lawyer Chris Wicker and union lawyer Michael Langton are scheduled to provide an update to U.S. Magistrate William Cobb on Tuesday. But they anticipate going to trial sometime in the fall after noting in last week’s joint filing can’t even agree on whether they are engaged in a formal labor dispute.
“The parties do not believe settlement can be reached,” they wrote.
Each bus is equipped with two audio-visual surveillance systems, but the audio on the second system has never been activated.
DriveCam’s palm-sized directional camera on the windshield captures continuous video of events in front of the bus, with a microphone that picks up conversation near the fare box between the driver and front passenger door. The storage of the data is activated by anything from collisions to hard braking or cornering. The driver also can manually activate the storage device, recording 10 seconds before and after the switch is flipped.
Transportation agency commissioners voted in February 2014 to activate the audio on the second, more-advanced Mobile View system, which has six to 12 cameras covering the bus interior and forward. That system continually records and stores up to seven days of video.
In addition to conversation near the fare box, the Mobile View microphone can pick up “someone talking loudly further back in the bus,” Wicker wrote in a court filing. “Generally, if the driver can hear the conversation, so can the microphone.”
Wicker said the move wouldn’t change working conditions because the audio recording capabilities already are installed. “It is merely carrying out the functionality of an already approved recording system,” he wrote.
Langton said state law forbids monitoring of conversations “unless authorized to do so by one of the persons engaging in the conversation.”
The transportation agency argues that signs already posted on many buses in both English and Spanish warn vehicles “may be equipped with audio and video surveillance.” The union countered that some people cannot read or speak either language.
And even if they do, “what if they objected?” Langton asked. “Unlike the DriveCam, which is activated by the bus driver as necessary, the Mobile View audio would be constantly recording voices whether they be between the driver and a passenger, or between passengers, but the ‘listening audience’ will not be a party to the conversation as required by Nevada law.”
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