Mechanicsville bathroom surveillance cameras under investigation

MECHANICSVILLE, VA (WWBT) - Controversy is getting served up at Mechanicsville's Calabash Seafood Restaurant & Midway Lounge. Owner Dennis Smith installed security cameras in the men's bathrooms, back in September. Smith says he's paid heavy costs for repairs after repeated bathroom vandalism. He maintains no privacy laws are being violated, since no guest's private areas are being recorded.

However, the Hanover Sheriff's Office is now investigating the camera situation. Officers executed a search warrant. The cameras were shut off. Smith says investigators are reviewing the footage.

Customer Victor Little says he was shocked to spot the cameras, while having dinner at the restaurant Saturday evening. He took cell phone video of the surveillance camera, situated on the ceiling above a stall.

"I was startled… I couldn't believe there was a camera in the men's room," said Little.

Smith says the bathrooms have been a target of damage, during the span of the restaurant's 34 years. Smith describes an incident in August that totaled $1,000.

"I had a customer go in the men's room and tear a urinal completely off the wall, with tile...(then the man) broke a toilet," recounted Smith of the damage.

However, the cameras have caused other problems. One man was charged for ripping out one of the cameras, back in September. He says he believed his privacy rights were being violated. The incident also prompted the Hanover Sheriff's investigation into whether any privacy laws are being broken.

NBC12 legal analyst Steve Benjamin says security cameras are risky in public places with an expectation of privacy, like bathrooms, locker rooms or fitting rooms.

"Whoever installs (the camera) has got to be very certain that that camera does not capture anyone in a state of undress, or produce an image of anybody's private parts. Once the camera does that, you're committing a crime," said Benjamin.

However, Smith insists the cameras are not angled at any location in the bathroom where a person could be recorded undressing or using the urinals or toilets.

"You can see (customers) walking in the bathroom. If they walk up to the urinal, you can crop that part of the picture out where it doesn't record...No areas of privacy are being intruded upon," insisted Smith.

Smith also says privacy settings on the security cameras further ensure no improper footage is being taken.

"This was done in the utmost respect to all of our customers," added Smith.

"(Smith's) concern was mostly of his damage and not of the patrons," countered Little.

The cameras are currently not recording. In Virginia, warning signs alerting customers to security cameras are not required. NBC12 will keep you posted on the investigation.

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