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Evidence Photography: Thinking Outside The Box

Mon, 06/18/2012 - 3:28pm
Mike Voelker

Photography illustrating your case report can strengthen your case and corroborate your narrative.

Traditional definitions of “evidence” include the ideas, “to make evident, something that makes plain or clear, data presented in court in proof of the facts.” (Dictionary.com) If a picture is “worth a thousand words,” and if the definitions above are some of the ways that we define the term “evidence,” then I would like to suggest some perhaps new ways that we can use this vital unappreciated tool.

The idea that the only time that one takes pictures is when there is a need to document a broken window, skid marks, vehicle damage, wounds, or injuries needs to be revisited, especially at the “patrol level.” Photography or digital imaging can certainly be an effective tool to document “evidence” that can save you time and effort down the road.

Figure 1: A photo can illustrate vehicle safety violations.

Traffic Enforcement
Those of you who stop vehicles for equipment and safety violations probably spend a great deal of time writing out a three paragraph description of the violations that initially caused you to stop the vehicle, and the subsequent violations that you discovered (Figure 1). If, down the road you need to defend your stop and the reasons you took an enforcement action doesn’t it make sense to have a photo or at least three to back up your observations and narrative report.

Instead of trying to create a word picture on the witness stand to help the judge or jury to “see” what you saw, why not let them do just that—see what you saw; because after all, seeing is believing right? Having photographs to supplement testimony regardless of the case is like conveying the message to the judge or jury that “you don’t need my testimony, have a look for yourselves.” And if you stop and think about it, the proverbial “picture is worth a thousand words,” is also worth at least 45 minutes of direct, cross examination, and re-direct testimony in court when you could be enjoying your day off.

Figure 2: show, don't tell.If the tires were “as bald as a baby’s behind” then you would most certainly benefit from having a photo to back up that contention (Figure 2). Isn’t this a better way to work? Can you see where a few images can save you from even going to court at all, much less invariably in the middle of your days off?

Eyewitness Perspective Documentation
We have all had cases where that one witness seems to make the case. So suppose for a minute that our case is one where a witness saw a suspicious person behind a business who appears to be ready to rob the business. The caller reports that the person appears to have a shiny object that looks like a firearm of some sort. Suppose that officers who are sent to investigate the subject end up shooting the subject who was “armed” with something other than a weapon.

Having initial responding officers document where and how the witness saw what they reported is obviously vital to any case. Instead of simply having the witness testify that they were looking out their window through the slats in their window blinds, again take the jury to the scene (Figure 3). Supplement the witness’s testimony with an image for the jury to take to the deliberation room.

Just to make sure that we are being as thorough as possible when we are locating where the suspect was at certain times in the event, suppose we use a traffic cone from our squad car or partner officer positioned by the witness from their perspective to further solidify and document that they had the ability to make their observations. Taking the picture to show where the witness was making observations can also aid their recall at the time of trial some years down the road.

Now let’s think about what effect the photos will have if we take it a step further and allow the witness to use our patrol point-and-shoot camera to take a picture framing it with the perspective that they saw. As noted speaker and forensic innovator Dick Warrington says, “Who says you can’t do that?” While this is certainly unconventional, I think your prosecutor has an even firmer foundation to introduce the images of the witnesses view to show that they had the perspective to see what they are testifying to.

Figure 3: Photographing the eyewitness' perspective takes the jury to the scene.

Figure 4: Images can help combat frivolous use of force claims.

Use of Force Documentation
At times people will make frivolous claims of excessive force and injuries resulting from arrests and uses of force in an attempt to solve their financial problems. Have you thought about how photography can back up your narrative report and how little appreciated and understood aspects of digital photography can save you, your coworkers, and your department time, effort, and perhaps money?

Let’s use an example of a use of force event where you or your co-worker’s suspect ends up with injuries that need to be treated at a hospital or otherwise have the person medically cleared before taking them to jail. I think most of us would think to take pictures of the wounds, but let’s look past the obvious and document the snugness of the handcuffs to cover that base as well. If the suspect is going to contend in a civil suit that you or your co-worker were vicious and out of control, would an officer who is busy snapping a series of pictures seem out of control to a jury?

Now let’s factor in the often overlooked aspect of the date and time stamp which is part of the digital image file metadata. If your camera has been adjusted to the correct date and time prior to taking the images, then your images can essentially take the jury to the scene. On this date and time this image was created and was saved to the SD card in this camera.

Absent in-squad video to back up your report that the suspect was spitting what they claim was contaminated blood at you while being transported; use a few photographs to document that the suspect had indeed done just that (Figure 4). Correctional staff documentation of claimed wounds or injuries on intake to the facility can help refute frivolous claims. The photographs document what the subject and their injuries looked like on this date and at this time.

A good personal, if not departmental practice would be to take a series of pictures the minute the suspect makes a comment about the handcuffs being too tight. After arrest and booking into the jail at least a second set should be taken.

Evidence Packaging
If there were questions about how you packaged your evidence, you can certainly answer nearly all questions without having to check the evidence out of property, remove the items for photography, and then add another seal when you re-package the evidence—if you took images of how you packaged and sealed your evidence. While this certainly adds a bit more time at the forefront of the investigation, I would argue that this will save you time and effort later on as you won’t need to explain the multiple layers of evidence seals on a particular package on the stand.

Here again I feel that your friend and mine, the date and time stamp on digital images, can bolster our position that we are not making it up. With a series of images you can lay out in order, on this date and time here is the seal that I put on the package, then on this date and time this seal was put on, followed by this one. I don’t mean to belabor the point, but as our society becomes more visually oriented, I think we do our cases a disservice if our only testimony to the truth of the matter is “well, I’m telling you it was this and I am sworn to tell the truth.”

Figure 5: The officer notes the total amount of currency confiscated.

Figure 6: Documenting the weight of each individual baggie.

Figure 7: Give the jury a failsafe visual: showing just how much the drugs weighed.

Drug Evidence
Photographs could probably save you from testifying in court by taking a few pictures of the material at the time of discovery, the subsequent field test results, and the packaging of evidence.

With a few pictures and some basic subject and case information a prosecutor could literally dictate a criminal complaint just from your images. For example in these next two images you visually depict what the subject was possessing, the officer notes the total amount of currency by (Figure 5) writing it next to each denomination stack. Next the officer has tallied up the total currency amount, and then written the weight of each of the individual baggies by each baggie, followed by the weight of the larger container baggie (Figure 6) to provide even more detailed documentation. In most jurisdictions juries are not allowed to review police reports during deliberation, but they certainly could be allowed to have your evidentiary photographs to review.

Taking our “evidence photography” thought process to another level, how about documenting the weight of our contraband with a photograph in a new way. Again the side benefit to digital photography is that bleary eyed investigators can readily determine when during that 36–48 hour work day they were packaging that particular evidence by reviewing the date and time information which is part of the digital image data (Figure 7).

After presenting this at my department I heard that an officer took this to the next level by taking a picture of the scale face before weighing the material. The image showed a .00 gram weight followed by a picture of the evidence and the weight of that evidence. While this seems a bit odd, it can help refute any defense contention that the scale was not working properly and was not zeroed out before you weighed the item. The date and time information, along with the image number, will back up when the image was taken.

The images don’t have to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, they just need to back up your observations and narrative report.

Figure 8: Take a few pictures before, during, and after a vehicle search.

Vehicle Searches
Juries know from media sources that we tend to find a treasure trove of contraband in the center console of vehicles. Squad video footage can back up the fact that we were in the car empty handed then pulled out something and placed it in an evidence bag. But now with our new or renewed method of taking the jury to the scene let’s take a few pictures before, during, and then after the vehicle search (Figure 8). Having a picture of what we found, how we found it, with the correct date and time stamp as to when we found it—followed by post search photos showing that the K-9 did not claw up the interior of the car during the search—I think closes the door on a great number of issues that arise and confront us regularly. At the next level, if your camera supports and captures geopositioning data you can now “show” the jury nearly exactly where that traffic stop took place or where the images were taken. Officers who work in rural areas can certainly see the tremendous benefit to this.

Electronic Evidence Documentation
Amongst the problems confounding our best efforts to gather this data is the cost of the extraction devices, and sometimes the distance between the extraction device and the subject device. Whether it is the temporary threat posted on Facebook, the threat, or the no-contact violation sent via a text message, low cost point-and-shoot style digital photography can be an effective tool for officers or investigators in the field to capture and document evidence. A background of a brown paper evidence bag, coupled with the business card with the case number and investigator’s name in at least one of the images will demonstrate a level of professionalism.

First Responder Photography
Finally it probably goes without saying that it is extremely vital for initial responding officers to take at least a few photographs of scenes before they get contaminated by personnel conducting a walkthrough. The few minutes of time to take a set of overall and mid range views of a scene can not only provide images to brief responding investigators, they can steer an investigation on a logical course from the start.

I know of a department where a number of years ago a full complement of personnel were called in to investigate a body found in the basement storage area of an apartment building. The limited information available was that the area by the body was extremely bloody.

Once the documentation of the scene leading to the body was complete, a more thorough exam of the specific scene clearly showed that instead of a homicide the department was dealing with a very determined and indeed very bloody self-mutilation suicide event. The investigation showed that the subject clearly lost consciousness after cutting himself, laid down several times, and then would get up again and run around the same area in a circle trying to pump his blood.

Clearly, a few scene photographs to brief the investigative team could have focused the investigation from the onset and likely could have saved time, pages of reports, and the cost of personnel for that department.

It is my hope that you can see the benefits of having still images to supplement your work and reports, and I have no doubt that in addition to what I have suggested here, you have already thought of additional ways a series of pictures could have improved an investigation. Take a few minutes and share that information with your co-workers and contacts.

Mike Voelker is a Detective with the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Police Department. Det. Voelker has over 23 years of law enforcement experience. Eau Claire Police Department, 740 Second Avenue, P.O. Box 496, Eau Claire, WI 54702- 0496; (715) 839-6165; mvoelker@eauclairewi.gov; www.eauclairewi.gov/police-home.

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