Why is video so important in criminal investigations?

Scott Greenfield, a New York criminal defense lawyer, comments on a recent case involving allegations of police brutality by law enforcement officers in New Jersey. Following claims that troopers in New Jersey were racial profiling, the State Highway Patrol required all troopers to maintain and activate dashcams to record any police enforcement encounters with citizens.

In this recent case, the trooper failed to activate his camera and, in fact, had been subject to sanctions by the highway patrol in the past for failing to activate his camera on previous occasions

The utility of video in revealing what really happens when cop encounters citizen can’t be understated, as it has fundamentally changed our understanding and appreciation of the ugliness on the street. Before, we relied on the sanitized, fantastical descriptions given by police officers on the witness stand, where they never uttered a mean word and were invariably professional and courteous in every interaction. It wasn’t their fault that the perp ended up with a gun-shaped bruise across his left cheek. He must have attacked the gun with his face. It can happen, you know.

Greenfield’s reference to “sanitized, fantastical descriptions” calls to mind this funny-because-it’s-true video of a cross examination of a police witness at a suppression hearing. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “based on my experience and training” I concluded that… followed by a bad opinion.

Videos can indeed be helpful, not only for “officer safety” (which is a real concern) but also to show what happened to the trier of fact. Was the car really swerving? Did the driver really consent to the search? How soon after the stop were the drug dogs brought to the car? Is this a pretextual stop? And if pretextual, is there any good faith, independent reason to stop the car other than the officer’s ulterior motive?

Many officers I’ve encountered actually like video cams because, in many encounters, the video cams actually show a criminal offense, or suspicious facts giving rise to probable cause.

Video can also help resolve cases more quickly, by allowing a client to see exactly the strength of the state’s case. In DWI cases, in particular, a person may not realize just how impaired they seemed. If the video shows impaired behavior and conduct beyond the normal “slurred speech, red glass eyes,” the video can resolve the matter quickly.

Video can also be used to defend a client by showing to the judge or jury, as the case may be, that the officer, was at the very least, mistaken when he put in his report that the car was swerving.

Unfortunately, North Carolina does not have a general requirement that police equip their vehicles with videos. This creates for a mishmash of results depending on the agency and on the officer. It can result in shoddy investigations, and prolonged criminal cases.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.