We’ve Come A Long Way…

On Point4 minutes readOct 27th, 2014

In the ongoing battle to prosecute domestic batterers, concerns around the authenticity of digital photographs are growing. Law enforcement must address modern acquisition and storage methods with new technology.

Historically, domestic violence was treated as a private matter best dealt with by family and clergy, outside the responsibility of the criminal justice system.  Fortunately, the situation has improved dramatically over the last decade.  Women and men have demanded enactment and increased enforcement of domestic violence laws.  Throughout the United States, the police have instituted mandatory arrest policies, and courts have begun to offer civil protection orders along with”no plea” prosecution policies, all intended to break the cycle of domestic abuse.

Nonetheless, successful prosecution of relatively minor episodes of abuse, especially misdemeanor batteries, faced three formidable barriers:

  1. The injuries are or can be portrayed as minimal;
  2. Minor altercations, especially when little or no physical evidence is available, can be seen as a simple argument; and
  3. Victims may refuse to press charges or cooperate even when injuries have taken place.

Improving the validity and availability of non-testimonial evidence used by the prosecutor and presented to the court goes a long way toward improving the quality of justice in domestic violence matters.  Digital images can record even slight injuries and offer the police officer the benefit of instant feedback, so that additional photos may be taken with changes in lighting and angle to ensure an accurate representation of injuries or damages.

With the growing use of digital photography in domestic battery prosecutions, procedures must be developed to ensure the utility of these images.  In the spring of 1998, the Institute for Forensic Imaging and the Hamilton County, Indiana prosecutor’s office conducted a study of domestic violence prosecutions after patrol officers were equipped with digital cameras.  The study focused on a single major question: “Does photographic evidence influence the adjudication of domestic battery cases?”

The study concluded that digital photography used by the officers first responding to a domestic violence call would quadruple the likelihood of conviction -mostly through plea bargains- even in cases where victims refused to testify.  In cases where digital photographic evidence existed, defendants were six times more likely to plead guilty, four and one-half times more likely to be convicted, and five times more likely to be sentenced to time in custody when compared to cases where digital photographs were not introduced.

Photographs of damage at the scene, if taken it all, had been shot with Polaroid cameras.  Photographs of bruises and other injuries, such as red marks or light bruising, were often not visible. Calling out a trained photographer or crime scene technician was simply not practical for most agencies’ budgets.  Using digital photography to collect difficult-to-gather evidence, images can be stored and transmitted via computer to prosecutors and judges at the earliest stages of the case.

Despite these important characteristics of digital photography, as well as police and public enthusiasm for its use, these photographs must be admitted into evidence under rules reserved for conventional photography.  Law enforcement agencies concerns around the authenticity of digitally produced photographs must be addressed by acquisition and storage methods.  Manipulation of digital images is much simpler than alteration of conventional film. Therefore, to rely on digital images, courts must believe that the photograph is authentic and relevant.

Generally, five procedures are necessary to ensure admissibility of a digital photograph in evidence:

  1. The image must be recorded in an unalterable, archival form soon after creation.  Delays in uploading or creating the archival image may subject the validity of the image to controversy.
  2. The image must contain information about its creation.  A secure hash and identifying data is needed to establish the image’s validity.  The image file may include additional metadata when transferred to the immutable data storage environment.
  3. The responsible agency must control custody of the primary image at all times.
  4. Agency personnel who prepare exhibits for court must be trained in digital image processing and preparation of digital evidence.
  5. The agency must establish rigorous policies and procedures for entering images in process into auditable file systems.

Agencies following these types of procedures will have little trouble getting their digital photographs admitted and seeing an improvement in their conviction rates as a result.

Fortunately, new technology addresses these concerns. For example, the Unisys Secure Image Management Solution (SIMS) can be deployed to prove that photographs are authentic and have not been tampered with or manipulated.

Without a solution like SIMS, the requirement that a recording or a photograph be original is far more difficult to substantiate.  Practitioners have fashioned standard operating procedures to accommodate federal and state rules of evidence and to ensure admissibility.

Tags-   Digital Images Domestic Violence