6/30/2016Indiana: Dashcam Video Refutes Traffic Cop Testimony
Federal judge tosses traffic stop evidence because dashcam video disproved police testimony.
In traffic cases, the law enforcement officer's version of events is usually accepted as the most accurate account. Except in rare cases, this is enough to convict any motorist. One of those rare exceptions took place in an Indiana courtroom earlier this month as US District Court Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson reviewed dashcam video and believed the motorist's version of events over the "illogical" and "inconsistent" account given by a Hancock County sheriff's deputy.
Deputy Nicholas E. Ernstes was running a speed trap from the median of Interstate 70 on the overcast and rainy morning of November 18, 2015. From about a mile away, he spotted a black Mitsubishi sedan with New York license plates traveling at 58 MPH in the far right lane. The limit is 70 MPH.
"The vehicle also caught my attention because it did not have its headlights activated while driving in the rain in violation of Indiana Code 9-21-7-2," Deputy Ernstes testified in an affidavit.
Victor J. Dominguez-Fernand, a 22-year-old Dominican, was driving the rental car with Ishmal Hamilton, a black man, as his passenger. They were carrying methamphetamine, which the deputy eventually discovered with his drug-sniffing dog, Manni. Although Dominguez-Fernand entered a guilty plea for this offense, he will likely withdraw the plea at a September 6 hearing because dashcam video undermined the deputy's credibility. Dominguez-Fernand, by contrast, presented entirely consistent testimony.
"Based on his demeanor and explanation at the evidentiary hearing, the court finds Mr. Dominguez-Fernand's testimony that he had been driving since it was dark and that he knew the headlights on his car were on because the dashboard was illuminated to be credible," Judge Magnus-Stinson ruled. "Deputy Ernstes' dashcam video bolsters this conclusion. First, it confirms that the taillights on Mr. Dominguez-Fernand's car were illuminated at least 30 seconds before Deputy Ernstes stopped him a few minutes later. Second, the video confirms that Deputy Ernstes did not mention the alleged headlight violation as a reason for the stop when he spoke with Mr. Dominguez-Fernand."
The court went on to point out that the deputy had testified that, from his vantage point on the median of I-70, he spotted the black Mitsubishi one mile away. So if that vehicle's headlights were not turned on, it would not be a violation of Indiana law since the lights are required so the car is clearly visible from a distance of 500 feet away.
The judge also discounted the officer's testimony that the Mitsubishi failed to adhere to the "two-second rule" for following distance. The dashcam video showed that Dominguez-Fernand left plenty of space ahead of him. The court was most disturbed by the deputy testifying that he saw only one person in the Mitsubishi, while his written affidavit said there were "two males" inside.
"The impact of these inconsistencies might have been lessened if Deputy Ernstes had manually turned on his dash-cam to record the traffic violation he claims to have seen," Judge Magnus-Stinson wrote. "While he admits he could have done so, he did not, depriving the record of significant, reliable evidence."
A copy of the decision is available in a 300k PDF file at the source link below.