5/16/2011Wisconsin Appeals Court Clarifies Dashcam Evidence Rules
Appeals court in Wisconsin sets rule that gives deference to trial judges who review videotaped evidence.
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals on Wednesday gave its first ruling on how dashcam evidence would be treated at the appellate level. A three-judge panel decided that the proper legal standard when evaluating a video is to overturn a trial judge's decision only it is "clearly erroneous."
The context was provided by the November 4, 2009 arrest of Jeffrey D. Walli in Sheboygan. The court was asked to determine whether Sheboygan Police Officer Brandon Munnik had a valid reason for pulling Walli over in the first place. Munnik claimed that around 11:22pm Walli's car nearly sideswiped him, so he flipped on his emergency lights, which triggered his dashboard-mounted video camera, and gave chase. Munnik testified that the resulting video showed Walli's car over the center line and was a legitimate traffic violation. Walli's attorney disagreed with that take.
"I think [the video] shows two vehicles coming toward each other, um, both on their side of the center line, they're both close to the center line, and that there is no showing of Mr. Walli's vehicle crossing the center line," the lawyer argued.
The video showed the police car took no evasive action, but a judge did not buy the defense counsel's argument.
"I believe at this point that the officer did see the vehicle cross the centerline, and that that's a violation of the motor vehicle code, and would give reasonable suspicion to stop, so the court would deny the motion [to suppress the evidence]," Sheboygan County Judge Timothy M. Van Akkeren ruled.
The appeals court was asked to review the decision and determine whether based on the facts at hand the officer had reasonable suspicion that a crime was being committed. The panel decided it should assume the trial judge has a better handle on the facts of the case.
"With the near ubiquitousness of squad car video cameras, surveillance cameras and traffic cameras, appellate courts will be deciding more and more cases where some of the evidence is preserved on recordings," Anderson wrote. "Where the underlying facts are in dispute, the trial court resolves that dispute by exercising its fact-finding function, and its findings are subject to the clearly erroneous standard of review."
In other states, appellate courts have adopted a "de novo" form of review of video evidence that does not give the trial judge's impression any extra weight. The Wisconsin judges were not persuaded by this approach.
"Here, the trial court's ruling involved not simply the review of the video, the court also evaluated the credibility of the officer and weighed all of the evidence," Anderson wrote. "In conference, we viewed the video recording from Munnik's squad car and conclude that the trial court's finding that Walli crossed the center line is not clearly erroneous."
A copy of the decision is available in a 65k PDF file at the source link below.