Lights, Siren, Action!

January 28, 2014

By Keffer Hirschauer LLP

When people hear a police siren, and see red and blue lights in their rear-view mirror, many things turn on. A heightened sense of awareness and concern for why the police are pulling them over are two things. But many people forget that, often, the police officer’s in-car camera is also on.

Police cameras are, generally speaking, a mixed bag. Some agencies have them (for example, Noblesville Police Department, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, West Lafayette Police Department) and some do not (for example, Indianapolis Metro Police Department, Indiana State Police, Fishers Police Department). Not only is the likelihood of a police agency utilizing in-car cameras hit-or-miss, but so is the evidence that they create.

First, when actions are recorded by in-car cameras, there are very few instances where an argument can be made (a fond practice for us lawyers) to recharacterize what occurred. That is to say, if an individual is recorded acting like an A-1 jerk to the officer and cursing at him/her for pulling the person over, then those heat-of-the-moment statements are preserved for the entirety of the case. Conversely, if the camera records a well-spoken individual, who walks free from assistance and acts courteous, the officer is going to have a problem characterizing that person as intoxicated and belligerent.

Second, the cameras themselves suffer from a number of practical/physical limitations. Chief among these limitations: the cameras only face forward and backward, the cameras and (more importantly) the microphones can be turned off by the patrol officer, many departments have not upgraded to high-resolution digital cameras, and the back-skip time is insufficient (cameras run on a continuous loop, and turn on when the officer activates his police lights, the recording will then jump back a few minutes to hopefully record the action that caused him/her to turn the car’s lights).

The law enforcement officers that utilize these cameras in their police cars no doubt understand the limitations and abilities of their equipment. They know how far their video will back-skip to pick up a driving offense that may (or may not) have occurred. They know how the video will appear to a prosecutor, judge, or jury, when they walk up to an individual’s car; and they adjust their behavior accordingly. And they know when their rear-facing camera is running and recording an individual who is already in handcuffs who, while simply asking what’s happening, may be giving the officer recorded, incriminating evidence without knowing it.

Regardless of your views on police cameras (useful tool for keeping people safe or another tool for big brother), they are here to stay. Local agencies, with the assistance of state and federal grants, are buying cameras for their police cars and stationary cameras to watch city streets. And these are in addition to the host of cameras used privately by individuals and businesses. To that end, these cameras serve as stark reminders of two things to citizens and police alike. First, even momentary misjudgments can be recorded, preserved, and relived, to one’s detriment. And second, those misjudgments may likely occur to those who forget, or do not appreciate, how common cameras are.

If you have questions or concerns about this issue, or have a criminal or civil case in which video is involved, contact the attorneys at Keffer Hirschauer LLP at (317) 857-0160.