Ben jumped in his cobalt blue 2018 mustang convertible. His parents got him the car as a high school graduation gift. He picked up his date Charlotte. Ben was excited has he spent most of high school trying to get Charlotte's attention. After graduation and getting his new car, Charlotte took a new look at Ben and agreed to go out with him. Now, they were on the way to their first date at the movie theater on Westcreek and Westheimer. Ben planned for a romantic evening. They would eat dinner at the restaurant in the movie theater and then go see a romantic comedy which Charlotte picked out. The movie started at 8p. Ben purchased their tickets online before arriving to ensure reserving their seats to the movie. However, Charlotte took more time than expected in preparing for their date and they left her parents downtown home at 7:45 pm. Ben's GPS showed it would take 25 minutes to arrive at their destination. In an effort to make his date with Charlotte perfect Ben rushed off to their destination. He and Charlotte made great time, shaving some five minutes of his trip. However, by the time he exited IH 610 and San Felipe, he noticed red and blue lights flashing behind him. Ben, upset that his date with Charlotte was going awry, pulled over and awaited the officer's approach.
Officer: Good evening, do you know why I pulled you over.
Ben: No I don't read minds.
Officer: I clocked you going 87 in 60 back there on the freeway.
Ben: Yeah I may have sped up a little back there but whatever man, just issue me your ticket and lets get moving. We are running late for our movie and you're taking too much time.
Officer: Are you aware your tail light is out?
Ben: Nope, I was not. Dude how much longer is this gonna take?
Officer: Your registration is also expired.
Ben: Look officer, you obviously have your quota to make for the month. Write me up for what you're gonna write me up for and lets get this moving.
The police officer after obtaining Ben's license and insurance, thoroughly checked Ben's license for outstanding warrants but found nothing. After running the warrant check, he returned to Ben's vehicle and issued him citations for speeding, expired registration and a defective taillight. Ben and Charlotte did not make their movie. Furthermore, Charlotte, the grand-daughter of a cop, was not impressed with Ben's interaction with the officer and decided she would never date Ben again. Ben, however, believed Charlotte's decision to stop seeing him was the officer's fault and vowed he would fight his case in court.
Ben hired a traffic ticket lawyer to fight his cases. He was confident since the case rested on his word verses the officer's word of what happened, he could convince a jury to find him not guilty. On his first trial date, he told his lawyer money and time were not an issue, he wanted to fight his case before a jury. His lawyer agreed but told him she did not wish to try his case by ambush. Ben asked for an explanation. His lawyer explained she wanted to view all evidence material to Ben's case prior to trial. If she did not, the prosecutor could bring it up in trial and it could pose problems for Ben's defense. As a result, she would request any and all video recordings of his traffic stop to avoid any surprises during trial. Ben looked at his lawyer inquiringly, then asked “Wait, there's a video?”
Cameras Are The Unseen Witnesses In Traffic Ticket Cases
The city of Houston Police department began using body cameras as early as 2013 and began implementing use on a wide scale throughout the department in April 2016.1 As of today, it is not uncommon for other surrounding counties and municipalities to have their law enforcement equipped with body worn cameras and/or dash cameras. Interactions between citizens and law enforcement during a traffic stop are recorded and kept as evidence.2 Thus, now its not merely the officers words against an accused in a traffic stop but the recorded interactions of the scene and what was said at the scene are kept as evidence for trial. Depending on the positioning of the camera, it can capture the alleged offense, though this is difficult to do in speeding offenses or offenses where the officer is on view while driving. The cameras leave no wiggle room to dispute the recorded statements between officer and ticket recipient at the scene of a traffic stop. However, this dichotomy is advantageous to the officer as they are more aware the camera is on.3 Motorists, however, are unaware or not thinking about the camera's presence when stopped for a traffic violation. Persons like Ben who make statements admitting violations or contrary to their interests at the scene are likely to face a rude awakening when faced with the video of their traffic stop.
Requirements For The Body-Worn Camera In A Traffic Stop
Each Houston police officer is required to turn their body worn camera on in stand by mode when on duty and performing any routine activity. If engaged in law enforcement activity, the body-worn camera shall be turned on to the activate mode to enable recording. Law enforcement activity is any event where an officer uses his/her police authority or performs any investigation, regardless if the investigation is consensual. Any officer engaged in the traffic stop of a vehicle or a pedestrian, whether by car pursuit or after flagging the person to stop, shall activate their body-worn camera. The device will record the police activity has it occurs and will also save up to two minutes of video prior to the device's activation from standby mode. The device must be activated until police activity ceases or until there is a permitted reason to deactivate the camera. Even if a citizen requests the camera to be turned off, officers are not required to stop recording. Persons who come into contact with law enforcement will be able to see the camera as it is worn on the front of the officer's uniform above the horizontal mid-line of the torso.4
Dash-Cameras Place in Your Traffic Stop
In addition to the body worn cameras, some of the cars within the department's fleet are equipped with dash-cameras. The dash-cameras are positioned on the dash board of the officer's vehicle. It is designed to record the view from the officer's car while a traffic stop is ongoing. Typically, it will show the officer's approach to the vehicle in a traffic stop, the surrounding scene and any movement between the parked vehicles while the traffic stop is ongoing.
Motorists Have A Right to Review the Video
A defendant to a traffic case is entitled to review and may request a review or copy of the dash-camera's and/or body worn camera's recording. Any recordings of a defendant or a witness material to a defendant's case must be made available upon defendant's request pursuant to the Morton Act.5 Upon a defendant's request, the prosecutor's office must make any recording of a defendant or recordings of witnesses to a defendant's case available for inspection and/or copying. HPD's policy is to keep their traffic cases' recordings for two years after the traffic stop.6
Protect Your Traffic Case
While no person is required to be polite or courteous to another, do keep in mind that the interaction between motorist and officer is likely recorded. As such, not only are the statements recorded and preserved, but each gesture, attitude of officer and motorist are also recorded for court consumption. During trial, the judge and/or jury shall see and hear from the camera's recording. Hashing it out with the officer at the scene could cause more harm than good.
If you are in a situation similar to Ben, contact our firm to see how we may assist you in your traffic ticket case.
Author's Information: Attorney Tracey A. Beecher represents persons accused of class c misdemeanors and city code ordinance violations within the City of Houston Municipal Courts, Harris County Justice of the Peace Courts and Fort Bend County Justice of the Peace Courts.
Legal Disclaimer: Each person's situation and circumstances are unique. As such, this article is given to provide general information only. It is not legal advice nor is it intended as a substitute for legal counsel. Should the reader need legal advice or counsel, it is appropriate to seek the assistance of a licensed attorney.
1 See HPD Starts To Arm Officers with Body Cameras by Emma Hinchliffe on web page https://www.houstontx.gov/police/nr/2016/apr/nr041416-1.htm
3 Any officer issued a body worn camera shall be trained in its operation prior to its use. See Houston Police Department General Order 400-28, Body Worn Cameras on web page https://www.houstontx.gov/police/pdfs/Body-Worn-Cameras.pdf
4 See id. at pages 1-4.
5 Texas Code of Crim. Proc., Art. 39.14. See also The Dawn of New Discovery Rules by Randall Simms on web page https://www.tdcaa.com/journal/dawn-new-discovery-rules
6 Houston Police Department General Order 400-28 Body Worn Cameras on web page https://www.houstontx.gov/police/pdfs/Body-Worn-Cameras.pdf , pages 8-9.