Michigan DUI and Police Video of the Traffic Stop

October 29, 2012

This article will explain why, as a Michigan DUI Lawyer, I almost always requisition a copy of the Police car video in a DUI case. The role of these "dash cam" videos has really evolved as the resolution of the cameras, and the quality of the videos they produce, has gotten better. While the real "role" of any Police care video has always been to document what happened, previous generations of cameras didn't do that nearly as well as the newer models. Advancing technology has led to the upgrading from low-res images to hi-res, almost high-definition footage that can, quite literally, speak for itself.

My Role as a DUI Lawyer is simple: I try to beat, or "knock out" a DUI charge whenever possible. That's like saying, however, that the GM simply makes cars. While that's essentially true, it also overlooks about a million little things that go into that. When there is an exploitable defect in, or question about the evidence, I will leverage that to the fullest extent possible. If the evidence is solid, then I will negotiate with the Prosecutor to reduce the charge or otherwise reach an agreement that will lessen the real-life consequences and make things better for you.

movie camera 1.2.gifAs much as a car is made up of parts, a DUI case is made up of evidence. Just like some parts of the car (engine and transmission, for example) are more important than others (like floor mats and radio knobs), some parts of the evidence (Traffic Stop, Field Sobriety Tests and Breath or Blood Test) are more important than others. Recent improvements in video quality have pushed the potential role of Police in-car video much higher up the ladder. As a result, I have now taken to obtaining a copy of such videos in just about every new DUI case that comes through my Office.

In the past, most in-car video cameras produced what can best be described as low resolution, grainy images. And if that wasn't bad enough, because most DUI's occur at night, the resulting video was low resolution, night-vision imagery. If you've ever seen an ultrasound picture taken from a pregnant woman, then you've seen low-res, low light imagery. I've always been amazed when an ultrasound technician can look at that tiny, grainy image, and identify the sex of the fetus. They can point to what they see as "evidence" of this or that gender all day long, but to me, it just looks mostly like a peanut inside a shell. My point, however, is that understanding what that image really shows requires some explanation or interpretation.

Similarly, I have sat in Court over the years and watched other Lawyers ask an Arresting Officer to explain what their old fashioned, low-resolution in-car video is really showing. Thankfully, I've seen this only as a spectator, and not a participant, because even from that perspective, I realized that, if a Lawyer must have the Officer explain the video, it almost certainly has no value for the Defense. Instead, it should be the Lawyer explaining the video to the Officer.

Ideally, such a scenario would play out something like this:

Lawyer: Officer Smith, in your report you indicate that you observed my Client, Mr. Jones, swerve right, onto the shoulder of Main street, just past Oak, as you followed behind him, is that correct?

Officer: Yes, sir.

Lawyer: Officer Smith, I'm going to play the DVD your Department supplied in response to my demand for a copy of your in-car camera. I want you to watch it, and confirm that this was, in fact, the car you pulled over and from which you extracted Mr. Jones in order to Arrest him and charge him with Drunk Driving....

Is that Mr. Jones driving in front of your Police Car on the night of his Arrest, Officer?

Officer: Yes.

Lawyer: And here it appears as if both you and Mr. Jones are approaching the intersection of Oak Street, correct?

Officer: Yes, sir.

Lawyer: Okay. Now, Officer Smith, as we watch Mr. Jones car and your patrol car approach Oak Street, and then pass it, and then keep on going for a while, up to the point where you pulled him over, where exactly did Mr. Jones swerve? I must have missed it, because I didn't see it.

Officer: Well, if may not have been picked up too well on the video, but I saw him swerve. It was just past Oak Street.

Lawyer: Very well. Let's rewind that video and watch it again, carefully, because I don't think it's a matter of the video not picking it up very well or not; I specifically watched Mr. Jones right tires on your dash-cam video and they never went onto the shoulder. Let's watch again. Meanwhile, Officer, maybe you can refer to your Report for a moment. Is it possible that you were wrong about where Mr. Jones allegedly swerved?

Officer: I might have fixed the spot wrong, yes. But I'm -

Lawyer: Fixed the spot wrong? What else is wrong, then, in your Report? Certainly we should watch the whole thing again so you can point out where, exactly, Mr. Jones did swerve. If we didn't have this video, the Judge would be left to decide between your word and Mr. Jones' that he swerved on Main Street just past Oak Street. Because of this video, we can see that's not necessarily true...

The reader no doubt gets the point. If the Officer has to narrate and explain what one bunch of indistinct pixels means amongst a flickering backdrop of millions of other grainy, flickering pixels, there will never be such an "a-ha" moment.

Of course, the scenario above is kind of a "best of all possible worlds" scenario for anyone facing a DUI. Even if the video in a particular case isn't quite so advantageous to the Defense, it may still be very helpful. Perhaps the Officer was a little strong in his or her Report about the person's speech being slow, or slurred, or maybe even it's just that the Driver really appeared to be polite and cooperative. There are countless things that can be used to drive a better outcome when someone is facing a DUI charge, and finding any weakness in the evidence helps that. I always say that you'll never find anything unless you look.

In the worst case analysis, even if everything the Officer say is confirmed by the video, at least the Client will know that certain avenues of Defense cannot be successfully pursued. While I promise that I'll leave no stone unturned as we look for a way out of a DUI charge, it's sure nice to have actually done it, as opposed to just having talked about it. This brings some piece of mind to both the Client and to me.

The main point here is that there was not this degree of clarity in the video evidence in the days of low-resolution cameras. While not all Police agencies are "broadcasting" in HD quite yet, the trend definitely moving in the direction of superior technology. As a result, it has now become pretty much standard practice for me to obtain a copy of any in-car Police video in my DUI cases. With today's higher-resolution cameras, even if the video doesn't show a clear way out of the case, it can provide much that can still be helpful. At a minimum, it will far more clearly show what did, and what did not happen, and that's at least a good place to start planning how to defend a DUI charge.