Legal Admissibility of Digital Video Recordings

By Kuboviak, Jim | Law & Order, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Legal Admissibility of Digital Video Recordings

Kuboviak, Jim, Law & Order

Watching the evolution of analog in-car mobile videotaping for the past 16 years affords an insight into the similarities of digital recordings admissibility.

The path digital evidence will be considered by the courts of last jurisdiction around the United States will be premised not only on analog audio and video but the emergence of digital audio recorders and most of all the admittance of digital photography.

Just as analog sound and still pictures were the basis of the foundation for admissibility of in-car mobile videotapes of the 1980s and 1990s, the established digital admissibility follows the same path as its predecessor. Image integrity will be the issue with digital recording, thus allowing its introduction into evidence.

Before a comprehensive review of the applicable law concerning the use of digitally recorded evidence in the courtroom a discussion on the various digital recording formats, options for transmission, and storage of data need to be taken into consideration.

Currently there are many new vendors in the law enforcement incar video market with several methods of digital recording. There are manufacturers using digital tape, solid-state memoiy on built-in either hard drives or removable hard drives and writeable discs such as CD-ROM or DVD.

The first consideration is that any of these formats must record at a no less than full-screen 30 frames per second in order to get a fair and accurate recording of the events. Less than 30 frames per second does not give a complete and total recording of picture and sound. With 30 frames per second the quality of the recording will be equal to or superior to current analog recording.

The most common systems use hard drives to capture the recording and some offer multiple cameras, which use considerable hard drive space. Each camera added will double the space required on the hard drive or CD/DVD.

The second major consideration is the use of compression as a tool to acquire additional recording time and reduce storage space. The matter of compression and decompression will be a topic of concern for digital users. The question asked by the defense will be whether the compression and subsequent decompression altered or changed the recording after it was made.

This is the point where analog and digital recording become different in several aspects. A new addition to incar mobile video that is unique to digital is the use of pre-event recording. What this feature does is record in a continuous loop for a specified amount of time, the audio and visual seen by the camera without the camera system being in the record mode.

As much a benefit that this might be in an accident or high-speed police pursuit, with audio it may become a prosecutor's nightmare at trial. What happens is if the pre-event record function is set for five or 10 minutes prior to the activation of the record function, everything the police officer says, does, drives and almost thinks has become a part of the criminal prosecution.

Lowering the pre-event record time to one minute or even 30 seconds, without audio will allow judges or juries to see the traffic violation, the crash or other police activity without bringing facts into evidence not connected with the criminal case.

From this point forward digital and analog have a drastic change requiring revamping of departmental policy and procedure. The first major concern is how to get the recorded video from the police car to storage. If there is a removable hard drive, this may be removed and plugged into a storage server.

This is one concern that remains the same as with videotape- who removes this hard drive, who has access to the actual recorded material. Some departments have chosen to have a supervisor remove the hard drive, while others allow the officer who made the video actually remove the hard drive or videotape.

Having the supervisor be the one removing the recorded material in whichever format says indirectly that the officer may not be trusted with this valuable evidence and only supervisory personnel may be trusted.

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Legal Admissibility of Digital Video Recordings


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