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Police body cameras cannot replace witness testimony, California Supreme Court rules

Posted by Sara Cooper | Aug 18, 2023 | 0 Comments

This unanimous decision made the state Supreme Court was based on a case where a woman refused to testify against a man that was accused of assaulting her.

Based in Los Angeles County, the judge had used her accusations that were recorded via body camera footage on the night of the incident as witness testimony on her behalf, which resulted in the court denying the accused man to confront his accuser as legal opportunity.

“We emphasize that a defendant's due process right to confront testimonial witnesses against him is not absolute,” the high court ruled in an opinion issued Monday. “What cannot be done, however, is reducing the analysis to a single determination that hinges solely on whether a statement qualifies as a spontaneous statement.”

This ruling comes in during a crucial time as body cameras have been more and more used from police departments throughout California.

According to KQED, “While body cameras are not mandatory among California agencies, CalMatters surveyed large law enforcement agencies last year and found that some of the largest police and sheriff's departments in the state have given body cameras to all of their uniformed officers.”

Typically, footage from body cameras are an evidence tool utilized in criminal cases and disciplinary proceedings against law enforcement.

With the new ruling, its use is limited in accordance to statements made on camera. Both prosecutors and the Department of Justice had been on the side that the camera footage should be used, because the suspect was also on probation.

Statements that are not made inside the court and cannot be confirmed are what is called hearsay and are not permitted to be used.

However, there are exceptions including “spontaneous statements,” thoughts that can't be process with deliberation at the moment. The courts have ruled these statements as accurate because it best represents what someone is truly thinking.

Here is a summary of a prior 2019 case related to this week's ruling, provided by KQED:

“In the case before the Supreme Court this week, a woman called 911 in March 2019, reporting that someone was trying to break into the house where she was working as an aide to a person with a disability.”

“Responding officers found damage to the front door and Dontrae R. Gray in the back of the house. The woman had bruises and a scratch on her face, and told an officer wearing a body camera that Gray kicked in the door and assaulted her. Gray was on probation for a previous, unrelated assault.”

“A few days later, the woman partially recanted her story, which is common among victims of intimate partner violence, and refused to appear at Gray's criminal trial despite a subpoena. Los Angeles County prosecutors tried to introduce the body camera evidence, but a judge refused to allow it.”

“The criminal case was dismissed, but prosecutors asked a judge to revoke Gray's probation, and again tried to use the body camera footage as evidence. This time, it worked.” - KQED

The judge ruled at the probation revocation hearing for Gary that the woman's statements are qualified to be spontaneous statements, resulting in Gary in being sentenced for 7 years in prison and revoked his probation.

“The court actually has the unique opportunity to actually see her, hear her and see her,” said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Renee Korn, according to trial transcripts cited on appeal. “It's not just an audiotape. It's not just the reiteration of an officer of these statements.

“Rather, it's actual video footage of who she is and how she presented at the time. (It) gives the court ample basis to find the defendant in violation of probation.”

Gary's appeal contained that the decision had considered statements from the body camera footage had violated his due process rights, and with state prosecutors replying that due process rights for probation hearings are “flexible.”  

“Probationers at revocation hearings are not entitled to the full array of constitutional rights available to defendants at criminal trials,” prosecutors led by Attorney General Rob Bonta wrote, “because probationers, having been validly convicted of crimes, have already been afforded the full panoply of constitutional trial rights in the criminal proceedings that resulted in their convictions.”

According to KQED, “A California appellate court agreed and affirmed the decision to revoke his probation. Then the case went to the state Supreme Court.”

In the past, probation revocation cases had relied only on paper evidence that have a variety of results.

For example, the Supreme Court ruled on a 1981 case that rejected prosecutors' use of a trial court transcript in lieu of a witness' testimony while another case had allowed hotel and car receipts that proved a person had broken their contract of probation by fleeing the state.

For this week's case, the court had all agreed that defendants have the right to due process and the right confront their accuser.

“The Attorney General asserts that the particular reliability and unique nature of spontaneous statements make them categorically admissible under the due process clause, without requiring a further finding of good cause or a balancing,” the court ruled. “We reject this categorical approach.”

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Second Appellate District.

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