California police body camera footage can’t take the place of witness testimony, court rules

Photograph by Logan Weaver

By Nigel Duara for CalMatters

When a woman refused to testify against a man accused of assaulting her, a Los Angeles County judge used the accusations she made the night of the incident that were recorded on a police officer’s body camera.

This week, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the judge erred by using the body camera footage to stand in for the woman’s testimony. Doing so, the court ruled, denied the accused man a chance to confront his accuser in court.

“We emphasize that a defendant’s due process right to confront testimonial witnesses against him is not absolute,” the high court ruled in an opinion issued Monday.

“What cannot be done, however, is reducing the analysis to a single determination that hinges solely on whether a statement qualifies as a spontaneous statement.”

The ruling comes as body cameras have become more common in California police departments, most recently this year in San Bernardino County.

While body cameras are not mandatory among California agencies, CalMatters surveyed large law enforcement agencies last year and found that some of the largest police and sheriff’s departments in the state have given body cameras to all of their uniformed officers.

Body camera footage of alleged criminal incidents can be used as evidence in court and in disciplinary proceedings against police officers. The new ruling limits its use with respect to statements made on camera.

Prosecutors, including the state Department of Justice, had urged the court to admit the body camera footage, partly because it related to a suspect who was on probation.

Statements made outside of court that cannot be verified at trial are called hearsay, and are generally prohibited.  But there are exceptions, one of them being “spontaneous statements,” which are statements made in the moment that don’t leave time for deliberation. Courts have found that these statements tend to accurately reflect what a person was thinking when they said something.

In the case before the Supreme Court this week, a woman called 911 in March 2019, reporting that someone was trying to break into the house where she was working as an aide to a person with a disability.

Responding officers found damage to the front door and Dontrae R. Gray in the back of the house. The woman had bruises and a scratch on her face, and told an officer wearing a body camera that Gray kicked in the door and assaulted her. Gray was on probation for a previous, unrelated assault.

A few days later, the woman partially recanted her story, which is common among victims of intimate partner violence, and refused to appear at Gray’s criminal trial despite a subpoena. Los Angeles County prosecutors tried to introduce the body camera evidence, but a judge refused to allow it.

The criminal case was dismissed, but prosecutors asked a judge to revoke Gray’s probation, and again tried to use the body camera footage as evidence. This time, it worked.

Body camera footage a ‘unique opportunity’

The judge at Gray’s probation revocation hearing ruled that the woman’s statements in the body camera footage indeed qualified as a spontaneous statement, revoked Gray’s probation and ordered him to serve a suspended sentence of seven years in prison.

“The court actually has the unique opportunity to actually see her, hear her and see her,” Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Renee Korn, according to trial transcripts cited on appeal. “It’s not just an audiotape. It’s not just the reiteration of an officer of these statements.

“Rather, it’s actual video footage of who she is and how she presented at the time. (It) gives the court ample basis to find the defendant in violation of probation.”

On appeal, Gray said the decision to introduce the body camera footage as testimony violated his due process rights. State prosecutors replied in briefs to a state appellate court that due process rights at probation hearings are “flexible.”

“Probationers at revocation hearings are not entitled to the full array of constitutional rights available to defendants at criminal trials,” prosecutors led by Attorney General Rob Bonta wrote, “because probationers, having been validly convicted of crimes, have already been afforded the full panoply of constitutional trial rights in the criminal proceedings that resulted in their convictions.”

A California appellate court agreed and affirmed the decision to revoke his probation. Then the case went to the state Supreme Court.

California rulings on probation revocation

Previous probation revocation cases relying solely on paper evidence offered varying results.

In one 1981 case, the Supreme Court rejected prosecutors’ use of a trial court transcript in lieu of a witness’s testimony. Another case affirmed prosecutors’ use of hotel and car rental receipts to prove a defendant had broken the rules of his probation by traveling out of state.

This week, the high court agreed that defendants have the right to due process, including the right to confront their accuser.

“The Attorney General asserts that the particular reliability and unique nature of spontaneous statements make them categorically admissible under the due process clause, without requiring a further finding of good cause or a balancing,” the court ruled. “We reject this categorical approach.”

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Second Appellate District.

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