As police body cameras become permanent in some New Brunswick communities, the new technology has become a mainstay in court proceedings, sometimes to the benefit of defendants and sometimes to their detriment.
Last week, the Fredericton Police Force announced that its six-year pilot program with body cameras was successful and equipped all of its frontline officers with the technology.
The Saint John Police Force plans a full deployment this summer. RCMP began testing body cameras this spring at three detachments, none in New Brunswick.
Fredericton Police Chief Martin Gaudet said the cameras increase transparency, help collect evidence and protect officers.
Two defense attorneys say that while police technology is meant to strengthen the evidence collected, it’s not all bad for the defendant. And sometimes, he doesn’t even make it to trial.
An example is the trial of Matthew Raymond. He was not found criminally responsible for shooting and killing Donnie Robichaud and Bobbie Lee Wright, and Fredericton Const. Sara Burns and Const. Robb Costello, who responded to calls of gunfire in 2018.
One of the officers was wearing a body camera, but since Raymond had already admitted to shooting and the images did not help explain his state of mind, they were not relevant enough to the issues at trial.
Defense attorney TJ Burke says body camera footage from the arrests of those charged with the first-degree murder of Justin Breau in Saint John is playing a role in the prosecution currently underway.
Burke and defense attorney Gilles Lemieux said body camera footage appears to make the biggest difference in drink-driving cases. This is because those cases rely heavily on the police account of how upset the driver was acting.
“When you have a body camera, especially if there is sound, you can not only see the person who is having difficulty, but you can also hear their speech,” Lemieux said. “It certainly makes it more definitive.”
Burke said this makes it difficult to challenge the basis of the arrest, but it can be helpful if the officer hasn’t followed proper procedure or shows something that police testimony might not include.
“Sometimes the evidence that a police officer describes in writing is not always the evidence that you see,” Burke said.
“The body cam image is sometimes different than how the police officer describes it.”
In cases of dangerous driving, Burke said, camera footage can help get to the heart of the matter more quickly.
On camera, courts had to rely on officers’ descriptions of how suspected criminals were driving.
Now, the judges can see with their own eyes. This way, the lawyers can directly discuss whether the driving caught on camera was actually dangerous.
“In this particular case, the use of body camera footage is helpful to the defense and the Crown,” Burke said. “It’s not always a success story every time there’s body camera footage.”
When officers become defendants
Burke also defends police officers when they become defendants. He said if they are charged with misconduct or assault when arresting someone, their own body camera footage would be key evidence.
“It’s a security tool for officers,” he said.
Although it has some benefits for the defendant, Burke said, like any other police tool, cameras help the prosecution more than the defense. In New Brunswick, any charges that the police want to file must first go through the Crown office.
Before proceeding with a charge, prosecutors review all the evidence in the case to decide if there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.
Information Morning – San Juan12:58body cameras
Burke said that if body camera footage shows a police officer, during an arrest, without giving someone the right to speak to a lawyer, for example, the Crown can decide not to file charges, without those images reaching to the courts.
People can submit a request to see body camera footage showing their arrest, Gaudet said.
Lemieux said he doesn’t see body cameras disrupting the way the justice system works. He said it adds responsibility and, like all technology, it has its pros and cons.
Looking ahead, he said he has some privacy concerns, especially for people caught on camera but not involved in the investigation.
Gaudet said the force has policies on privacy, such as turning off cameras when entering a school or hospital.
Burke said he has also seen an improvement in the way images are edited to hide personal information and identity from minors.