Thursday, September 3, 2015
Cropped Video Deemed Inadmissible Due to Rule of Completeness, Best Evidence & Chain of Custody Issues
There's an interesting case out of Arizona that ties directly into the subjects I'm covering both in Evidence class and on the Undisclosed Podcast. That case is State v. Steinle, 2015 WL 4497917 (Ariz.App. 2015).
On December 12, 2012, Alejandra Moran attended a house party. On the same evening, a fight began in the street and a witness, Hector Ponce, used his cell phone to make a video recording of the fight. Several witnesses, including Moran, stated that in the minutes leading up to the altercation, there was both a verbal and physical altercation between Moran and the victim, L.U. Ponce "cropped" the first four and one half minutes from the video, sent the final thirty-one seconds of the video to a friend, and deleted the original video from his cell phone. The final thirtyone seconds of the video showed an individual, purported to be Moran, stab L.U. in the chest. Moran was subsequently indicted for first degree murder.
Detectives were subsequently unable to recover the full version of the video from Ponce's phone, leading Moran to move to exclude the cropped video, citing to the rule of completeness, the Best Evidence Rule, and the chain of custody requirement. The trial court excluded the cropped video on all three grounds.
The State thereafter appealed, and the Court of Appeals of Arizona concluded that the cropped video was properly excluded. In particular, it cited the rule of completeness, Arizona Rule of Evidence 106, which provides that
If a party introduces all or part of a writing or recorded statement, an adverse party may require the introduction, at that time, of any other part--or any other writing or recorded statement--that in fairness ought to be considered at the same time.
Essentially, the court concluded that it would have been prejudicial to allow for admission of part of the video without the jury getting to see the full video.
I'm less certain of the court's ruling on the chain of custody issue because the majority didn't discuss it. Conversely, the dissent concluded that "[t]he State can properly authenticate the video and establish a continuous chain of custody with testimonies from Ponce, Mahfouz, and the detectives who seized it."
I don't know which side is correct, but Steinle clearly demonstrates that courts can and do exclude evidence based on failure to satisfy the chain of custody requirement. I write this because a number of non-attorneys continue to write me, thinking that issues with the chain of custody go to the weight of the evidence and not its admissibility.
I can see why they come to this conclusion because some of the information gathered from an internet search might seem to support this conclusion. But this is where having a little bit of information on a topic can be a dangerous thing. Here's the actual state of the law:
Minor flaws in the chain of custody do go to the weight of the evidence, but major flaws go to admissibility. As the United States District Court for the District of Oregon recently noted in United States v. Crawford, 2015 WL 3827705 (D.Or. 2015):
while some breaks in the chain of custody may be issues for the jury, the failure to document the collection and storage of the bottle cap observed at the arson scene raises insurmountable authentication and identification obstacles. See, e.g., United States v. Edwards, 235 F.3d 1173, 1178 (9th Cir.2000) (finding that the failure "to conduct a thorough initial search" of a bag, the removal of the bag from evidence, and the "circumstances of the discovery of the bail receipt" inside the bag rendered the bail receipt "inherently unreliable" and inadmissible); see also United States v. Mejia, 597 F.3d 1329, 1336 (D.C.Cir.2010) (serious breaks in the chain of custody of an item can result in its inadmissibility).
This, of course, has relevance in the Adnan Syed case. In that case, we know that a video was taken of the windshield wiper lever in a Nissa Sentra after (1) it was released to a private body shop; (2) it was left outside, unlocked for over a week; (3) a Club was put on the steering wheel; and (4) its ignition collar (adjacent to the lever) was replaced. Those are the types of major flaws that go to admissibility, assuming that an attorney makes a proper objection.