Police Use of New Recording Technologies

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There’s been quite a buzz lately about Google Glass, a “wearable computer” that looks like a pair of eyeglasses but that uses the lenses as transparent screens to display information to the user. (For example, the user might have CNN headlines constantly scrolling on the edge of the screen, or might have the glasses show a list of nearby coffee shops.) One feature of Glass that has received considerable attention is its ability to record still photos and video. Privacy advocates are concerned that it will usher in an era of ubiquitous recording, of constant surveillance. But isn’t that era already upon us?

Consider some of the technologies already in use by law enforcement:

  • In-car cameras, currently installed in almost three quarters of state police and highway patrol vehicles, as noted here in The Police Chief
  • Wearable cameras, discussed in this New York Times article (the article refers specifically to camera glasses made by Taser, such as the AXON Flex, shown here)
  • Stationary surveillance cameras, which are present in virtually every major city as discussed here in the Wall Street Journal and here in the Newark Star-Ledger
  • License plate readers, which have been deployed in Raleigh according to this WRAL article
  • Surveillance drones, discussed in this CBS News piece

And don’t forget that most officers and civilians alike carry cell phones everywhere they go, and that most cell phones are capable of recording still photos and video.

The prevalence of recording devices raises a number of legal questions, from Fourth Amendment concerns to discovery issues. On the latter point, consider, for example, when footage from a stationary surveillance camera becomes part of the “file” that must be disclosed to the defense during discovery. Is it when an investigating officer saves a copy of the footage to his or her computer? When the officer views the footage, even if he or she does not save a copy? When footage within a certain time and distance from the time and scene of the crime is recorded, regardless of whether an officer ever views it?

For now, I’d like to abstract away from particular legal issues and ask for comments on a few more general questions:

  • First, which recording technologies are showing up most often in court here in North Carolina?
  • Second, are the recordings working more often in favor of the state or the defense?
  • Third, where do you turn for help with the legal and practical issues presented by recording technology? Are there references or experts that, for example, law enforcement agencies turn to when deciding whether to implement wearable cameras? Are there resources that lawyers used when litigating the Fourth Amendment issues presented by these technologies?

I may have more to say about these issues in the future, but at this point I’m interested in hearing others’ views.

6 comments on “Police Use of New Recording Technologies

  1. The area to which I see problems is probably hospital ER intake, prisoners have rights to medical privacy. I also see problems in interviewing sex crime victims if you respond to their home and speak with them. I just don’t see a need for all this recording, vehicle stops is different than everyday talking with someone. What’s next, cops on every corner checking for papers.

  2. No problem at all. IF, and I say IF, law enforcement preserves ALL of the data. It is now public record and can be requested by practically anyone with few exceptions. If it helps convict, good; If it helps exonerate, good. It works both ways IF our justice system is to work as it was designed…

  3. the problem that most defendants have is that cops want to record them, selectively and with the ability to turn camera’s on and off at will and even edit them..but try and stop citizens from filming them. There are are cases coming up daily all over the nation with proof that cops misstate the laws and threaten and even arrest people for recording them, in public and where the cops have no legal expectation of privacy, simply to keep evidence of misconduct from being recorded. cops all over are seizing cameras and deleting scenes that they deem too risky to allow the citizen to have, and this is ebcoming a real isse.

    Cops cliam that filming them is illegal, or ” interfering with investigations” etc., and the only reason a cop has to want no record of their conduct is when the cops are acting wrongfully. If a cop is acting within the law, they should have no issue with being filmed…they want the ability to record us at will, but resist the opposite.

    Recently police in California seized cameras showing them beating a man to death, deleting the events, and even holding residents at their home for hours until they could intimidate them into handing over the evidence they wanted to destroy. in order to protect the citizens, all cops should be required to wear cameras that they cannot stop and start at will, and that cannot be deleted. They also should have standing orders, enforced by the courts, that they cannot interfere with citizens filimg them and cannot seize camera’s as potential evidence without a warrant. it is obvious that cops abuse their authority constantly and in this age of electronic ability to record their crimes, we must safegaurd the rights to film them without fear or arrest…cops will destroy evidence of their misconduct if there are no penalties for same, and this is the biggest issue we face. We mus be able to hold cops accountable and only direct evidence can do that, which is why cops hate the civilians filiming them so much.

  4. First, compare the total number of police officers in the U.S. (almost 800,000 as of 2010) against the number of officers who abuse or misinterpret their powers regarding the use of recording devices. Of course it happens. An honest police officer does not mind wearing a “tamper proof” recording device. He/She has nothing to hide. To lump all police officers into the same category is like labeling every attorney as crooked, which is not the case at all.

    On the other side of that coin, I have personally seen audio/video recordings do just as much to exonerate police officers from frivolous accusations, as they do to incriminate for the officer’s unlawful/unethical actions.

    Second, as a police officer, I use different recording devices for different purposes. Digital voice recorder for field interviews that need preserving; video camera for interviews in the office and for interviews with a statutory requirement to record; and in-car video for patrol operations.

    They are used, and should be used, to both exonerate and convict. It is our job to collect all possible information, enforce and abide by the general statutes, and trust the prosecution, defense, judge, and jury to make a decision based on ALL the evidence.

  5. North Carolinians deserve to know how much their local police are using military weapons and tactics for everyday policing. Across the country, local law enforcement agencies are increasingly using military equipment to conduct traditional law enforcement activities.

  6. If a cop is acting within the law, they should have no issue with being filmed.they want the ability to record us at will, but resist the opposite.It is our job to collect all possible information, enforce and abide by the general statutes, and trust the prosecution, defense, judge, and jury to make a decision based on ALL the evidence.

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