Legal Watch: A Win for Video Admissibility

Sept. 9, 2014
Recent federal court ruling confirms viability of even flawed surveillance recordings

A recent opinion issued by the federal court of appeals for the seventh circuit addresses the admissibility of video from a surveillance camera. In United States vs. Cejas, a three-judge appellate panel unanimously held video evidence offered at trial admissible against the objecting criminal defendants — even though the video was recorded on a defective recorder that caused the video to “skip” intermittently.

The opinion reiterates the liberal standards from the admissibility of video in court. Here’s a brief synopsis of the court’s 25-page opinion:

Factual Background

In early 2011, the FBI installed a surveillance camera on a utility pole in Terre Haute, Ind., outside the home of Brian Denney, who the FBI suspected of trafficking in methamphetamine or “meth.” The pole camera permitted the FBI to remotely view and record video from the location. On Feb. 8, 2011, while FBI agents monitored the live feed, the camera showed Tino Cejas arrive at Denney’s residence. Six days later, the pole camera again showed Cejas arrive at the residence, this time with his brother, Nicholas Cejas.

Before entering Denney’s residence, the video feed showed the Cejas brothers reaching into the toolbox in the bed of their truck but the video quality was insufficient to show either Cejas brother taking anything from the toolbox.

When the Cejas brothers left the Denney residence a short while later, the video again showed the brothers reaching into the toolbox and again the quality of the video failed to reveal what, if anything, either of the brothers placed into or took from the toolbox. Moments later, acting at the direction of FBI agents remotely monitoring the video feed, local FBI agents stopped the Cejas brothers in their truck as they were leaving Denney’s residence and found a handgun and $8,000 in cash in the toolbox. Denney testified at trial that he purchased meth from the Cejas brothers while they were in his house.

Legal Arguments

At trial and on appeal, the Cejas brothers objected to the admission of the government’s Feb. 14 recording — arguing first that the government failed to properly authenticate the video at trial. The court rejected the defendants’ arguments, noting that the government’s witnesses had demonstrated that the pole camera filmed Denney’s home, was continuously monitored and that the camera feed provided accurate results. Additionally, the feed was date and time stamped consistently with witness testimony. Thus, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision to admit the video into evidence.

Next, the defendants attacked the reliability and accuracy of the recording because the video as recorded skipped a few seconds at a time. The defendants claimed this made the video unreliable; however, the court disagreed, noting that in order to preclude the video at trial, the defect must render the entire video unreliable. Here, the video recording skipped intermittently for a total of 30 seconds during the entire 35 minutes. The court held this was not sufficiently substantial.

Lessons Learned

We record plenty of video for subscribers and we, the subscribers and law enforcement authorities, want our video to be admissible at trial. The Cejas case confirms that imperfect video — a recording that skips or doesn’t show what the subjects of the video are doing in great detail, doesn’t mean that the video won’t be admissible. That’s good news for the industry and our subscribers.

But don’t stop there. Consider setting up a written protocol with your subscribers to aid the admissibility of video at trial.

Eric Pritchard is a Philadelphia Lawyer who spends his workday making the world safe for electronic security providers. He can be reached at [email protected]. This column does not constitute legal advice; contact an attorney with questions. 

About the Author

Eric J. Pritchard

Eric Pritchard is a partner in FisherBroyles, a law firm with offices throughout the United States and in London. He spends his days trying to make the world safer for the security industry. You can reach Eric at [email protected].