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Video is not the only evidence in DUI cases

posted Feb 25, 2015, 9:57 AM by Resty Manapat

Technology can be a boon to law enforcement, including the increasing use of cameras to record traffic stops and various other interactions between police and civilians. But members of South Carolina law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and victims’ advocates have complained that, in too many cases, evidence from videos has been more hindrance than help in prosecuting DUI charges.

We can understand why problems with a video might make it unsuitable as evidence. But we can’t understand why judges would throw out charges and dismiss an entire case merely because the video account of the arrest was faulty.

Members of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, prosecutors and victims’ advocates from across the state gathered earlier this month at the Statehouse to ask the General Assembly to reform certain provisions of the state’s DUI laws. Among their complaints is the frequency of charges being dismissed because of stringent video requirements.

Critics claim that judges have dismissed suspects’ charges because of glitches in the video of the arrest, such as shadows cast over the suspect’s face, blocking the face from being seen. In another case, charges were thrown out because a suspect’s feet weren’t completely visible during a heel-to-toe sobriety test.

In South Carolina, drivers suspected of driving under the influence who take a breath test can be assumed to be intoxicated if their blood-alcohol content measures 0.08 or more. This so-called “per se” rule gives prosecutors an advantage in proving the suspects were drunk when operating a vehicle.

Nonetheless, prosecutors also must prove that the accused driver was impaired when he or she was stopped. The level of impairment usually is based on observations and evidence of improper driving, physical appearance, field sobriety tests and any other relevant evidence that can help prove a person was unable to safely drive a vehicle.

That’s where video evidence can be an advantage. Field sobriety tests and conversations between officers and suspects are routinely recorded.

We can understand that judges would require videos to be of decent quality. If the suspect’s face can’t be recognized or parts of the field test aren’t visible, the video shouldn’t be used in court.

But even if the video is tossed out as evidence, that shouldn’t result in having all charges dismissed. Prosecutors still have the blood-alcohol levels and the testimony of arresting officers to rely on.

That’s how prosecutors got convictions before dashboard cameras were standard equipment in patrol cars. The videos are meant to supplement the case, not serve as the only viable evidence.

We are enthusiastic advocates of both dashboard cameras and the increasing use of so-called body-cams, small cameras officers can wear on their uniforms to record arrests and questioning of suspects. The videos are useful not only in recording the actions of suspects but also in protecting police from accusations of inappropriate use of force or other malfeasance.

And, when an officer does overstep his authority, the video can be used to support the claims of suspects. Again, though, the video is just one piece of evidence, not the whole case.

Critics have called on the Legislature to change DUI laws to ensure that cases aren’t routinely thrown out because of faulty videos. If that is the only way to resolve this issue, we would second that request.

South Carolina’s DUI-related death rate is among the highest in the nation. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors need to be able to make the case against offenders even without the backup of a video account.

The use of video technology is meant to keep us safer, not serve as a way for drunken drivers to escape punishment.


Source: Herald