Indiana Supreme Court Declares An Officer's Testimony Is More Reliable Than Video Evidence

from the apparently,-LISTENING-is-believing dept

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.

Filed Under: evidence, indiana, police

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  1. identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 10 Apr 2014 @ 10:27am

    The Real Power of the Human Eye.

    I just did a little experiment. I took a thread, about a fifth of a millimeter in diameter, laid it against a mildly contrasting background, and found that I could see it out to a distance of fifteen feet, that is, one part in 22,000. As a whole series of psychological experiments have demonstrated, the human eye often has greater performance than most cameras. I'm sure an eagle-eyed deputy could do better that I did in my little experiment. The camera in the police car is probably only a small inexpensive model, with only 500 X 500 pixels or so. The deputy was probably able to do a better job of estimating the sideways speed and sideways acceleration with which the defendant's car was approaching the white line than a camera could do. He was able to see that the defendant was doing a poor job of keeping her car under control.

    If you want to make more accurate measurements than the human eye, you generally need to design a special piece of apparatus, rather than just using a general-purpose camera. For example, an automobile has brake lights, which provide information which would not otherwise be available to the driver of a following car. I suppose the turn signal lights could be plugged into a sideways accelerometer.

    The deputy does not contradict the camera's story. He merely claims to have been able to see the same thing in more detail. Now, of course his brain translated from where the car actually was, to where it was going. That is the way the primate brain works. A little monkey sees a bug flying along, and leaps for the place where the bug will be by the time the monkey arrives, not for the place where the bug is now. Let's assume that the monkey is a new world monkey, and has a tail which he can use as a rudder. In that case, his perspective while in flight is that the bug's horizontal position is "coming towards him," and if it isn't, a flick of the tail corrects the situation. Put another way, a monkey can do differential equations inside his head, only without being conscious of it. I imagine what the deputy saw was a kind of "trend line," reflecting the defendant's car's accelerations.

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