Can a Lawyer Demand Access to Police Dash Cams in a Wrongful Death Case?

When it comes to winning a case, there are a lot of factors that you need to consider. However, when all is said and done, evidence is the most powerful tool at one’s disposal. Unfortunately, a lawyer may find that their attempt to find the evidence to advocate for their client hits roadblocks — either because the evidence is obscure and difficult to find, or because a person or persons is actively trying to keep the evidence from you — and as such, even if the evidence would ultimately be in their client’s favor, they may discover it quite inaccessible. One question that comes up often with respect to obtaining evidence refers specifically to police dash cams, and whether a lawyer is entitled access to it when the dash cam would be relevant to the case.

Can a Lawyer Gain Access to Police Dash Cam Footage in a Wrongful Death Case?

Police dash cameras first started being used in 1981, and ever since, they have proven to be an excellent tool — not only for providing definitive evidence of wrongdoing on someone charged with a crime who got caught by the camera, but also to serve as evidence for people accused of a crime that they did not commit. It is a tool that lawyers try to use to the best of their ability. Indeed, police dash cam footage is usable for a wrongful death case, with some laws being stricter than others, for various factors.

What Can Police Do To Prevent a Lawyer From Obtaining Police Dash Cam Footage?

In certain states, police have pushed to make it more difficult for people or organizations to gain access to police dash cam footage. For example, in 2008, the state Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that police were not required to release dashcam videos that relate to criminal investigations (unless an officer used deadly force on the footage). The argument for not requiring them to release this footage is that the law on releasing public records does not apply to it because no state law specifies they are to be made, and the law provides an exception for criminal investigatory records. In the case of New Jersey, it is technically possible to still obtain such footage, but it will be more difficult than normal, possibly requiring a lawsuit in order to obtain the footage. In the case of a wrongful death case, even if the police are themselves alleged to be responsible for the death, they are not protected from the exception to public records releases, though that does not mean that the police will not attempt to withhold it or make it more difficult for a lawyer to obtain. Other states have similar laws, including Pennsylvania, and a number of advocates for increased access to such information have felt that this was an effort to make it more difficult to obtain, and to protect police from criticism in potentially contentious issues.

Is it Always Worth Pursuing Police Dash Cam Footage?

Police dash cam footage, when relevant, is always a nice thing to have as part of your evidence. However, in some cases, it may prove to be more of a hassle to obtain than it is worth. For example, if the wrongful death case is open and shut even without the police dash cam footage, it may not be worthwhile to pursue it. After all, if police are involved, or if they are being combative regardless and making it difficult to obtain, you may end up spending money fighting a lawsuit that you ultimately did not need to engage in. On the other hand, if you do not have definitive evidence without the police dash cam footage, or if its absence puts enough reasonable doubt that the accused may end up being found to not be liable for what they did, you will have to weigh the cost of pursuing the footage versus the risk of losing your case.

It is important that when you pick a lawyer and if you expect that you will need to pursue the footage, you should ensure that whoever you go with, that they have the experience and skill necessary to handle the police. It may be tempting to also sue for attorney fees in order to offset the costs if you were able to get the footage, especially if it was found that the police department’s justification for withholding the footage was not accurate or truthful, but at the same time, it may be a steep uphill climb. It may prove to be especially problematic if the footage showed what may be the wrongful death by a police officer, as it may implicate one or more members of their respective police department of refusing to provide incriminating evidence in order to protect the accused and unduly damaging your case. For instance, if the incident occurred in New Jersey and police were being difficult about releasing the footage (especially to the degree of needing to be sued to release it), they would have denied the footage despite it not being considered an exception to the law. Hopefully, laws will be implemented to increase access to such footage, as it will help prevent such abuses from occurring.