‘Granny cam’ bill aimed at families

Private investigator Michael Lamont holds a SSC-468CHQ Digital Clock Camera that he uses during his investigations. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 5/3/13

Brad Nettles

When a woman contacted Mike Lamont about hiding a video camera in a nursing home, the private investigator pondered the legal implications.

The woman suspected that her 101-year-old grandfather was being abused, but the frail man couldn’t talk about it. She turned to Lamont’s surreptitious methods.

But Lamont wondered whether it could be done without violating residents’ and employees’ privacy. He consulted with attorneys and later planted a camera that the police say filmed a Mount Pleasant Manor worker hitting and taunting the man as he lay in bed. The employee was arrested.

“An investigator has to be really cautious and abide by the law,” Lamont said. “But ultimately, the abuse was captured, and that outweighed a lot of those concerns.”

Inspired by the case, a Charleston state senator introduced a bill last week to make it clear that families have electronic surveillance at their disposal in gauging loved ones’ quality of care. The goal is to deter abuse and catch violators.

The measure would require state-licensed facilities to inform residents and their relatives of the tool. It also devises criminal penalties for anyone who interferes with the equipment, known colloquially as “granny cams.”

It’s a law that has been discussed before in South Carolina, but it never gained traction. Critics said it was motivated by attorneys trying to line their pockets through civil litigation against nursing homes where violations are found.

In the three states that have the law and a dozen others that have considered one in the past decade, the industry has raised privacy concerns. Such close scrutiny also could make it difficult for homes to retain staff members who already face low pay and high demands, critics have said.

Nobody involved in Lamont’s case has said there was anything legally or ethically dubious about how he captured the video.

The bill would require permission only from the resident featured, or from a legal representative. A roommate’s permission wouldn’t be necessary, a condition that Randy Lee, president of the S.C. Health Care Association, said might be troublesome.

“That’s getting into residents’ rights,” Lee said. “We also need to look at the rights of the property owner, because it’s a privately owned business.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina echoed his concern. Its director, Victoria Middleton, said the union likely would recommend that the bill allow only soundless video recordings, to prevent capturing conversations not pertinent to the suspicion of abuse.

“Clearly, it’s trying to strike the right balance between privacy and safety,” Middleton said. “But we think it should be amended.”

Lee, who hadn’t yet formed an opinion of the bill, said possible ulterior motives should be investigated.

About a decade ago, he said, attorneys pushed a similar effort for the sake of gathering evidence for civil lawsuits. Their attempt didn’t get far, he said, and legislation never was introduced.

Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, drafted the current bill that allows video to be used in criminal and civil courts. He is an attorney whose colleague, Matt Yelverton, specializes in elder-abuse cases and represents the 101-year-old man in Mount Pleasant.

Attempts to contact Yelverton by telephone and by email were not successful.

Thurmond said he modeled the measure after one that Oklahoma lawmakers unanimously approved Monday.

Among its provisions, the law would penalize anyone who tampers with the cameras.

“It should give people a little bit more peace of mind about their elders,” Thurmond said. “They would be able to watch and alleviate their concerns.”

Thurmond’s law firm in downtown Charleston was contacted last year by Julie Johnston, whose grandfather had indicated abuse at Mount Pleasant Manor, a 132-bed facility on Bowman Road.

What struck Thurmond about Johnston’s concern, he said, was that her grandfather couldn’t tell his side of the story. The man suffered dementia.

Johnston turned to Lamont’s company, Deepwater PI, whose equipment could do the talking for the man. With her grandfather’s power of attorney, she gave Lamont permission to hide a camera.

The requests are becoming common, Lamont said. More families are contracting him to spy on their loved ones’ living conditions, he said.

Lamont positioned a camera just to the right of the patient’s hospital bed in a way that limited its view of the man’s roommate. The device also didn’t record sound, ensuring that it wouldn’t pick up the roommate’s conversations.

“Outside in a public place, it’s a whole different ball of wax,” said Lamont, a former Charleston police officer. “Inside a nursing home, it’s an environment where you have to be really cautious.”

Lamont’s video shows fingers poking at the frail man, arms shaking him, lips kissing his cheeks. The 101-year-old grabs a glass of water, a phone, an electric razor to defend himself.

It led to the arrest of 44-year-old Deasmond Kimbrough on a charge of abusing a vulnerable adult.

The case is pending, and neither Solicitor Scarlett Wilson nor Kimbrough’s attorney, Brian Byrd of North Charleston, would discuss it or the legislation it inspired. The facility’s administrator, Bruce White, could not be reached for comment.

Attorneys for the man’s family have not said whether they plan to sue.

In the states that have “granny cam” laws — Texas, New Mexico and Maryland — the legislation resulted from cases like the one at Mount Pleasant Manor, said Georgia Anetzberger, president of the Washington-based National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.

Anetzberger said the trend continues to snowball as cameras become smaller and more advanced. Since the early 2000s, about a dozen states have considered such measures.

She expects more states to adopt the laws as the public continues to accept cameras’ use in high-profile incidents, such as when surveillance images led to suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.

“There’s a comfort level with cameras that can catch actions that are disturbing and unlawful,” Anetzberger said. “Without these cameras, it probably wouldn’t be possible to get these kinds of outcomes.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.