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What's needed to protect the accused from police body cams?

Police body camera use is the subject of a great deal of debate. We have touched on some of the issues in previous posts, most recently in June. Earlier still, in 2015, we highlighted how police authorities then were concerned about the growing pressure to use these devices.

The specific concern expressed was that cameras could violate privacy rights of victims, juveniles or bystanders captured on video unexpectedly. Since then, Tennessee lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at protecting innocent individuals by designating that certain footage must remain confidential.

The other side of the rights protection coin

Few would question the need for such protections, but the advent of police body cameras also present challenges that require consideration of what might be required for protecting the accused.

Attorneys with deep experience in criminal defense appreciate the double-edged sword that personal video devices represent. On one hand, citizens hold greater power to hold police accountable for serving the public. On the other, government controls the output of police body cam footage and so citizens could be at risk.

In light of that, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers recently issued an endorsement of body cam usage – couching the approval within very strict limits, including:

  • Ensuring that video taking is not done at the discretion of individual officers
  • Making sure video is securely stored long enough to allow an accused to find evidence that might prove his or her innocence
  • Allowing the defense access to all body cam footage related to a case
  • Establishing parameters to ensure that body cam video is as objective as possible
  • Prohibiting officers from viewing body cam video before writing their initial reports
  • Banning searches of body cam footage with biometric identification technologies
  • Prohibiting investigations of criminal acts unrelated to the events for which footage was captured
  • Giving officers the resources and proper training on cam use
  • Making sure that all legal counsel associated with cases are trained to provide effective counsel
  • Putting control of body cam footage in the hands of an independent, non-police agency

It appears the Tennessee measure passed this year meets some of those criteria. Where it comes up short, an opportunity may exist for action by defense counsel on behalf of the accused.

Source: National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, "Policing Body Cameras: Policies and Procedures to Safeguard the Rights of the Accused," Joel M. Schumm, accessed Aug. 256

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