13 Tips for Using Security Camera Surveillance Video Evidence in Court
Here are thirteen tips for attorneys, private investigators, law enforcement officers and of course everyday citizens, gathered over our years from working as forensic video and audio evidence experts. These tips are sure to give you proper insight into the handling of video evidence, or it might just simply help you avoid making critical mistakes during trial. To get additional assistance, contact us now for a free phone consultation. NCAVF also offers a California State Bar accredited MCLE class based partially on this list.
- Search everywhere for surveillance/security cameras that might have recorded the event. Security surveillance video cameras are EVERYWHERE! Home security camera systems not only record inside a residence, but these video cameras often capture the exterior -- in the public domain -- so always be sure to investigate neighboring businesses and homes that have security cameras. Often, their video cameras may have recorded sidewalks and streets relevant to your event -- even a camera a block away might have seen something that might become crucial in your case. And remember: It's on YOU to find these materials!
- You are on a very short time deadline. Private video surveillance cameras and workplace security cameras use DVR systems that don't save recorded video footage on their hard drives for long. Sometimes as long as a month will be saved, but often home surveillance systems will save the files only a week! The home owners and business owners who have security cameras are not necessarily experts in operating their equipment, and they will likely have no idea when their footage will automatically erase. It could be a week, or it could be a month -- every system varies. Do this investigative work immediately upon being assigned the case, and you might discover and save visual evidence that will make you a hero!
- Check the security system's time settings. The high-definition security video systems we encounter usually have inaccurate time settings. So if you need to save video from an event that occurred at 2pm, be sure it wasn't marked and saved into the security recording system as 1pm -- or even on an entirely different day. It will save you a lot of time and frustration.
- Capture the highest resolution possible from the security recording. Once you find that a security surveillance camera system may have captured evidence, you want to preserve the highest video resolution possible. Most optimally you want to capture a video signal directly from the computer's hard drive. Sometimes this means attaching a cable and converter to capture the DVR's VGA/RGB direct output.
- Confiscate the camera that actually recorded the event. If your case is important enough to you, you'll want to take the hard drive that recorded the security footage, and also the camera that recorded the signal, whether it was a camera phone, a home camcorder, or a security surveillance camera. Why should you do this? To prove or disprove certain evidence in court you want to maintain the option to exactly recreate the scene of the crime -- this requires information including the computer system settings used when capturing the video and information about the actual camera including the lens through which the video was captured.
- Determine measurements of a suspect's height, determine distance, car speed, and object size through forensic video evidence analysis. What measurements, if they could be determined, would be helpful to your case? There is a fascinating tool at your disposal: 3D scene reconstruction and mapping software. We use this forensic analysis in conjunction with security surveillance camera footage to find specific details in a video -- an individual's height, location within a crosswalk, shoulder width, and any other item you may wish to measure.
- Dark footage may contain valuable details. Dark or underexposed video footage can be easier to enhance than retreving details from video frames that are over exposed and too bright. You may think a video is too dark and there is no detail there, when in fact the image quality can be brightened. Collect and save all footage, no matter how unclear and unintelligible it may seem to you, and allow the video expert to do the enhancing forensic work. Here is an example of dark footage evidence made brighter in our labs.
- Give video forensic experts sufficient time. Audio and video forensics is an art. We've found that the longer we work on a specific case, and the longer we repeatedly view video or listen to audio of an incident, the more we begin to recognize crucial details that were overlooked at first, and the more we consider alternative digital forensic filters and methods for enhancement and analysis.
- Just because enhancement couldn't be done before, doesn't mean it can't be done today. As technology improves, there are more advanced methods available to enhance audio and video recordings. This proved true in our case involving deputy Ivory Webb. If we had gotten the Ivory Webb case a year earlier, the audio could not have been filtered as well because a new version of the software came out that provided a better tool for audio filtering.
- Make It Dummy Proof - Presenting evidence smoothly in court
Presentation of enhanced video or audio evidence is critical, especially to a jury, so when presenting your digital media evidence, always make sure it’s as simple to use and understand as possible. The goal is that anyone should be able to “get it.” Create DVDs and CDs that play with the miminum of effort on the part of the attorney, so he can focus on the arguement to the judge and jury. And each chapter selection on the DVD menu should play exactly the specific video or audio evidence needed -- no more and no less.
- Involve your video expert in the setup of equipment before the court case. In the days and weeks before court presentations, be sure to test all video and audio cables and equipment. When your presentation of the video or audio evidence is smooth, it keeps you on the good side of the judge and builds trust with the jury. On numerous occasions, we've been told by the opposing side, "You can plug right onto our systems." But when we test their setup in the days prior to the case, their playback system wasn't operating correctly. So for best results, work together with your forensic video or audio expert to test equipment being used to present the evidence so that the judge and jury can see and hear the evidence most comfortably.
- Bring your forensic video or audio expert into court during trial. If possible, have your video expert physically at the trial. An on-hand video and audio expert will solve any technical glitches immediately, smoothly operate video and audio playback, and free up counsel to focus on arguing the details of the case instead of fumbling with technological devices. Allow your digital media forensic expert to be a partner in your success. We've seen in court opposing lawyers tripped up by digital media playback, which often results in losing a key moment to make an affective argument - especially during cross examination when last second changes are common. Don't let this happen to you.
- Maintain trust of the jury by hiring an experienced forensic video expert and an expert witness that exhibits confidence and honesty. In today's technology-driven world, people understood more than ever that images, sounds and video can be manipulated through unconventional editing techniques. Jury members especially understand this. Most likely they have seen nutty conspiracy theories in films, and they have watched too many bad TV shows about cops and trials. But the right expert witness can put their apprehensions to rest by being a trustworthy source of information, by clearly testifying to the chain of evidence, and by explaining the relevant aspects of the forensic video and audio enhancements. Once the audio or video evidence is declared legitmate by your expert witness, your jury can then focus on the evidence and make an intelligent decision.