Natty Shafer Law

Utah lawyer for criminal and immigration cases

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Video Evidence Is Invaluable

More and more police cruisers in Utah are equipped with dash cams. Not every city in Utah has them, but almost every Utah Highway Patrol cruiser does. Each city varies a little on when they record. Some record all the time, others only when police officers turn it on, and others turn on automatically when the police sirens or emergency lights are engaged.

For me and my clients, I prefer if the recording is always active. There’s no chance of someone intentionally turning it off or forgetting to turn it on. Cameras that wait until a police officer turns on the emergency lights offer too little too late; a jury or judge can never see what caused the officer to pull someone over. Often a client in a DUI or drug possession type case contends that the police officer was never justified in pulling them over in the first place. People accused of driving under the influence are not often trusted by judges so when they say that they were not speeding or weaving, their testimony is given little credit. Incidentally, dash cams do not always work in the defendant’s favor, and they corroborate what the police officer reported. In those situations, the dash cam is valuable, because there is concrete evidence that everything the police officer is saying is true, and I can push for a defendant to take a plea instead of wasting time or money pursuing the case further.

The quality of the pictures continues to get better. It is likely that most people have seen dash cam footage on news broadcast or news magazines and had difficulty telling what is happening in the video. The low resolution, grainy videos give officers license to describe a video however they want. The officer can say, “It’s difficult to see, but right there, the defendant swerves.” All the judge or jury can see is a couple of taillights moving along the road, and the officer gets the benefit of the doubt.

High resolution videos today are better, and combined with microphones on many officers’ belts, we know exactly how a conversation between a suspect and an officer transpired. Even at night, the better cameras today clearly show the lanes, street signs, and other obstacles. Juries can clearly see that an officer is lying, or at least embellishing. Often an officer uses jargon in their police report. Almost every DUI report mentions a few things: the person smelled strongly of alcohol, they stumbled, they spoke slowly and slurred their speech. While we still can’t smell what the officer smells, the tapes sometimes show a lack of stumbling or drunken speech.


The Police Benefit from Lying Too

Many criminal cases come down to the word of a police officer versus the word of the accused. Frequently, in cases such as drug possession and traffic offenses, an officer’s testimony is the only evidence. When the judge or jury must decide who to believe, they almost always side with the officer. Utah juries seem to be particularly trusting of the Utah police. After all, they reason, the officer has no reason to lie, while the accused is trying to avoid punishment. That logic would be sound if it the assumptions were true, but police have incentives to lie, just like everyone else.

If you think about your own job or social circle, you’ll realize that people lie for many different reasons. It doesn’t take much encouragement to make certain people lie. You likely know someone who lies just to avoid looking dumb or to sound more interesting. Imagine if that person could lie to receive promotions, pay raises, or other accolades. Then imagine that nearly everyone would believe that person, regardless of how improbable the story, simply by virtue of holding a particular job title. A courtroom and a solemn oath is unlikely to keep that dishonest person from committing perjury.

Just like everyone else, the Utah police lie for many different reasons. This point was driven home a couple weeks ago when a Utah judge ruled a Utah Highway Patrol officer was not credible. Lisa Steed, the UHP officer, was even awarded the title of “UHP Trooper of the Year” in 2009 so even highly decorated officers can perjure themselves. In hindsight, it’s not clear why Officer Steed felt compelled to lie. Her stories were often improbable and far-fetched, and yet judges and juries believed her.

A jury must make some determination as to who is lying and who is telling the truth. If an officer’s testimony is the only evidence or the primary evidence against the accused, juries absolutely need to view the officer’s testimony skeptically. And if an officer testifies that a defendant did something improbable or contrary to common sense, a jury should find the defendant “not guilty.”