Reasonable Doubt: Smartphones have become equalizers between citizens and police
On October 14, 2007, the police accidently killed Robert Dziekański when they tried to subdue him with a taser in YVR airport. Paul Pritchard witnessed the entire event and recorded it on his cellphone. The police seized the cellphone and did not release it until Pritchard threatened legal action.
The Braidwood Commission of Inquiry released a final report that found the RCMP officers involved in the tasering had deliberately misrepresented what happened. Pritchard’s video was instrumental in that finding since it showed relatively clear evidence of the events.
More recently, Constable James Forcillo was charged with second-degree murder after he repeatedly shot an 18-year-old boy holding a knife on a Toronto streetcar. Witnesses recorded the shooting on their smartphone and released a copy to the media, causing public outcry.
The popularity of smartphones has had a large impact on our legal and political life. Smartphones allow most Canadians to create relatively reliable evidence of important events.
Eyewitness testimony is not always reliable. We have a tendency to remember events differently than they actually happened. We can also take on false memories through talking with other people about what happened.
In more extreme cases, people have actually confessed to crimes that they did not commit. In about 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases in the United States, the innocent accused had made incriminating statements, given confessions, or pled guilty.
I spoke with Micheal Vonn, a lawyer and policy director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, about the use of smartphones to capture police misconduct. According to Vonn, smartphones have proven to be an important equalizer in police complaint processes by providing complainants with clear and objective evidence of what actually happened.
Smartphone videos have also changed the public discourse on police misconduct. As explained by Vonn, “smartphone videos have brought credibility to groups voicing concerns over police misconduct and police oversight and moved the discussion away from whether those groups are merely anti-police or are exaggerating the extent of the problem”.
The BCCLA continues to receive complaints of police officers confiscating people’s smartphones or asking them not to take videos.
It is perfectly legal for someone to videotape police officers with a smartphone so long as they do not interfere with the police investigation and are not trespassing or breaking another law.
Sometimes police confiscate people’s smartphones because they contain important videos or pictures. According to Vonn, the police “are not allowed to confiscate a smartphone unless they have reason to believe that it contains important evidence and they have reason to believe that you will destroy the evidence”.
If you do not want the police to take your smartphone, then the BCCLA suggests an easy solution: tell the police officer your address in case they need to contact you and tell them that you will keep the video safe in the meantime. That will give the police time to seek a warrant they need your smartphone for their investigation.
The BCCLA has also released a helpful app for British Columbians that provides basic information on what you can and cannot do if the police detain or arrest you. They also offer a useful “self help” guide for civil liberties complaints.