Many Southern California law enforcement agencies are beginning to use dashboard cameras (“dash cams” or “MVARS”) to capture traffic stops which lead to DUI arrests. In fact, many of these videos can be found on youtube.com showing DUI suspects miserably failing field sobriety tests, slurring their words, and otherwise providing evidence of their intoxication.
The dash cam, however, need not provide only incriminating evidence.
Dash cams are objective. Unfortunately, officers are not. Dash cams record what occurred as it occurred. Unfortunately, officers write their police reports hours after the incident occurred and well after their memory of the incident begins to fade.
The dash cam recording typically captures the suspect’s driving prior to the stop, the stop, any field sobriety tests performed, conversations between the officer and the suspect, and the arrest. Believe it or not, dash cam footage can and oftentimes directly contradicts the arresting officer’s report.
Law enforcement needs probable cause of a traffic violation to initiate a traffic stop, which is usually the first step in the DUI investigation process. Absent probable cause, a driver cannot be pulled over. Unfortunately, many officers fabricate the probable cause for stop, claiming that a driver never used a blinker, or they were swerving, or they ran a stop sign, so on, so forth. The dash cam, however, can show that there was no probable cause for the stop. It can show that the blinker was used, there was no swerving, and the driver did stop at the stop sign.
Once the stop is initiated, it can quickly turn into a DUI investigation when the officer notices the driver’s slurred speech, or so they claim. The dash cam can capture the driver speaking perfectly fine.
Before officers can arrest someone for DUI, they must have probable cause that the driver was driving drunk. How do they obtain the probable cause? Officers use field sobriety tests, as unreliable as they may be. And although a person may perform well on the tests, it is not uncommon for officers to claim in their report that the driver failed the tests. The dash cam can capture the driver performing well on the field sobriety tests.
Officers often claim that a suspect resisted arrest. Dash cam can show that officers are sometimes the aggressors. According to “Good Morning America,” such was the case with 30-year-old Marcus Jeter from New Jersey, who was cleared of resisting arrest and assault when a dash cam video showed that the arresting officers were the aggressors.
Unfortunately, even in those agencies which used dash cams, some officers are finding their own ways to cloud the transparency that dash cams provide.
I recently defended a case where the officers claimed that the DUI suspect “failed” the field sobriety tests without explaining how. I seriously questioned the veracity of the officer’s extremely vague (yet not uncommon) accusations. My client was 6’ 3”, 220 lbs., a regular drinker, and his blood alcohol content was alleged to be 0.08 percent.
Surely, the dash cam would show my client performing well on the field sobriety tests. He very well may have, but I would not have known because the officer took my client out of camera view to perform the tests.
Fortunately for my client’s case, the prosecutor recognized that the officer was merely attempting to circumvent the accountability of the dash cam. In fact, she disclosed that this is not an unusual tactic for officers. She also acknowledged that such tactics place prosecutors in a difficult position when prosecuting DUIs. Understandably, it must be difficult to endorse an officer’s extremely vague police report when the officer attempts to hide the truth.
People suspected of driving under the influence should seek to obtain a copy of the dash cam footage if it is available. It could prove to be helpful in defending a DUI case. Remember, unlike officers, dash cams can't lie.
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