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from the apparently,-LISTENING-is-believing dept

April 11, 2014
by Tim Cushing
Tech Dirt

Seeing how often official reports by law enforcement are contradicted by video recordings, you’d think judges would have become a bit more skeptical about the supposed “superiority” of officers’ recall powers. But that’s apparently not the case, at least not in Indiana, where the state’s Supreme Court has ruled that officer memory trumps video recordings.

Videotape evidence can be overruled by the testimony and after-the-fact interpretation of a police officer, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled last week. In a 6 to 1 decision, justices overruled the state Court of Appeals which reviewed dashcam footage of Joanna S. Robinson driving her Chrysler PT Cruiser at around 1am on October 15, 2011 in Elkhart County and found no evidence of a crime.

In the case being discussed, the officer following Robinson’s car observed it veering over the fog line twice, which gave him the reasonable suspicion he needed to pull her over. Once pulled over, Robinson blew a .09 BAC (.01 over the legal limit) and volunteered to the officer that she was also in possession of a small amount of marijuana. During her trial, she attempted to have the evidence suppressed on the basis that the officer did not have the reasonable suspicion needed to pull her over.

The Supreme Court reviewed the dashboard cam recording, concluding that while it may have not showed exactly what the officer claimed (or indeed, any solid evidence that Robinson’s driving was impaired), it was clearly inferior to the officer’s observational skills and experience.

Deputy Claeys, as he drove down County Road 4 on that October night, was observing Robinson’s vehicle through the lens of his experience and expertise. And when Deputy Claeys testified at the suppression hearing, the trial judge heard his testimony—along with the other witness testimony and evidence, including the video—through the lens of his experience and expertise. Ultimately, that experience and expertise led the trial judge to weigh Deputy Claeys’s testimony more heavily than the video evidence, and we decline Robinson’s invitation to substitute our own judgment for that of the trial court and rebalance the scales in her favor.

This conclusion was reached despite Claeys’ “superior” observational skills observing things that didn’t actually happen.

Deputy Claeys testified “both passenger side tires were over the fog line” and “completely off the roadway” “twice.”

As the single dissenting opinion notes, the previous court found Claeys’ recall of the events suspect.

The trial court summarized the evidence presented, observing that “the officer in this case has testified that defendant drove off the roadway on two occasions.” The court further acknowledged that “[i]t is quite possible that the officer’s actual visual observation of the defendant’s vehicle was superior to the video camera in his car.” But the court recognized that the video did not reflect that the vehicle “actually left the roadway” but only that it “veer[ed] on two occasions onto the white fog line.”

Despite this disparity, the trial court still felt that “veering onto the fog line” was enough reasonable suspicion (for a “well-trained officer”) to justify a stop. Judge Rucker points out how ridiculous this assumption is.

The Court of Appeals reviewed numerous cases from other jurisdictions as well as prior Indiana precedent, all of which support the proposition that mere “brief contact with the fog line or swerving within a lane”—without more—is ordinarily insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion of impaired driving […] I agree and would reiterate the observation that “if failure to follow a perfect vector down the highway or keeping one’s eyes on the road were sufficient reasons to suspect a person of driving while impaired, a substantial portion of the public would be subject each day to an invasion of their privacy.”

Despite the appeals court’s conclusions and the deputy’s faulty recall, the Indiana Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s finding.

The trial court found, as a matter of fact, that to the extent Deputy Claeys’s testimony conflicted with the video, the former was more reliable than the latter.

While it’s certainly true that video itself can be open to the interpretation of its viewers (as is noted in the majority opinion), it’s hardly as subjective as a single officer’s portrayal of events. What is often depicted as superior instinct and training may actually be nothing more than self-delusion or post facto justification for rights violations. This sets a precedent for Indiana that suggests exculpatory video evidence will be given less weight than the “expert” testimony of law enforcement officers.

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Source: Tech Dirt

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