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Do police body cameras help or hurt criminal defense cases?

The use of body cameras by police is the latest hot button issue in the legal world. Body camera use by police is on the rise in Omaha, according to the World-HeraldRecent cases of police violence have raised the debate on whether or not body cameras are necessary and effective in law enforcement.

How could the use of body cameras by police help or hurt a defendant in a criminal case? A recent story out of Baltimore allegedly shows a police officer planting evidence of a drug crime during a stop in January of this year. This video could be critical to raising a reasonable doubt of the defendant's charges in court. However, in a different case, body camera footage could violate certain constitutional protections such as the right to privacy, protection against self-incrimination and the right to an attorney.

Procedure is important when investigating body camera use

Body cameras are a new tool for law enforcement and criminal defense attorneys in determining the facts of the case. The newness of the use of body cameras combined with constitutional protections makes procedure important in their use.

According to the World-Herald, Omaha hopes to equip all of its 400 officers with a body camera "in the next few years." Additionally, local police officers are required to take certain steps when using a body camera including:

  • Police should turn on the camera upon arriving at the location.
  • Police must inform their contact of the recording if practical.
  • Recording should continue until the incident has "ended" or a supervisor asks an officer to stop recording.
  • Recording will not take place during strip searches or in certain areas where personal privacy is expected such as a restroom.
  • Video footage should be used "to guide" an officer's written report of an incident.
  • Footage of certain stops involving physical force, felonies or contraband may be copied automatically.

If an officer fails to record an incident or attempts to misuse footage, an attorney could use this as a defense in criminal court. Because body cameras are new to policing, much of the policy surrounding their use has not been written. The law could be further defined by legislation or the courts in an exceptional circumstance.

Emerging policy and public opinion appear to favor the use of body cameras by police. Whether or not body camera footage could help or hurt a defendant's argument in court can be determined by a criminal defense attorney on a case-by-case basis.

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