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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Police body camera videos affecting criminal case outcomes

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell saw the power of video evidence while working on a drunken driving case a few years ago.

The suspect’s attorney claimed his client was not drunk at the time of her arrest and insisted the arresting officer’s breathalyzer had malfunctioned, Haskell said. But dashboard camera video showed the woman attempting to walk in a straight line, then stepping backwards and falling out of the camera’s field of view.

“Before that, the defense lawyer was considering going to trial,” Haskell said. After viewing the video, the attorney agreed to settle the case.

With most Spokane patrol officers now wearing body cameras, video evidence is used more often in court.

“Seldom is the event anymore when somebody doesn’t have a body cam video,” Haskell said.

Sometimes, that video isn’t especially helpful, as in cases where officers are too close to a suspect to capture clear footage. But Haskell, along with public defenders and private defense attorneys, say having video available is generally a good thing, even if cases don’t always resolve in the way they’d hoped.

Public defender Dave Loebach, who works felony cases, said body cameras can provide a good record of cases where police officers may have collected evidence improperly.

“It’s helpful in cases where there is a suppression issue and the video supports either that the Constitution wasn’t followed or the evidence was collected improperly,” he said.

Loebach recently worked a case in which his client has been accused of transporting a large amount of marijuana. The officer stopped his client for a speeding violation and claimed the search was voluntary, but after reviewing the video, a judge determined the officer had continued questioning the suspect after he should have been free to leave.

The charges were eventually dismissed.

Getting a dismissal without video evidence “would have been much harder,” he said.

Many attorneys brought up drunken driving cases when asked where video is most relevant. The Washington State Patrol typically handles those cases, and all of their patrol cars are equipped with dashboard camera video.

Some, like private defender Frank Cikutovich, said video is helpful in those cases because it goes beyond the oft-repeated description of “bloodshot eyes” that’s found in most police reports.

“When you use boilerplate language because you know that’s what will help in a conviction, it doesn’t actually show what happened at the scene,” Cikutovich said.

In cases where clients are obviously intoxicated, some defenders say it can help persuade them to take plea deals and resolve the case quickly. Rob Cossey, a private defense attorney, said video in those cases means it’s less likely the case will go before a jury.

“If it’s a DUI charge, it’s probably not as helpful because if our client is intoxicated or being obnoxious, it’s pretty compelling evidence,” he said.

Footage has implications beyond DUI arrests, however. Defense attorney Steve Graham said he’s seen multiple cases where police officers said his client assaulted them, but a prosecutor ended up filing reduced charges after reviewing the video.

“When you look at the video it looks more like resisting arrest, some flailing around on the part of the suspect,” he said.

But the extra footage can make some criminal cases more time-consuming, and questions remain about who’s going to pay for long-term storage of video evidence.

The caseload for investigators in the public defender’s office has increased over the past few years, in part as a result of spending more time reviewing video, said Greg Beeman, the investigator supervisor. Before video existed, an investigator might go over an eight-page police report with “a fine-toothed comb” and take half an hour.

“There could be two hours, there could be four hours of body cam video to watch on an incident like that,” Beeman said.

When he started at the office in 2008, investigators typically worked about 40 cases at a time. Now, that number is closer to 75 or 100 for each of the six investigators.

Haskell said the police department has discussed sharing the costs of video storage with his office, but nothing definite has been worked out yet.

Haskell also is serving on a statewide task force on body cameras that will examine their use and make a report to the governor and Legislature by Dec. 1, 2017. That task force will make recommendations on how body camera footage should be treated under the state’s Public Records Act, following a law passed last year which temporarily placed restrictions on public records requests for footage.