Photographic Evidence

Some Ontario cities have given their parking control officers digital cameras which allows them to submit pictures of your "illegally" parked vehicle in court.

With this evidence, prosecutors believe they have a slam dunk conviction. You must stop them.

Your first defence will be disclosure. If the evidence was not disclosed to you, you must cry foul and object. The Crown should have known about these images shortly after the date of offence. Why wasn't it disclosed to you in advance? What else are they hiding or what additional images are they not using that could aid your defence?

This becomes an unfair trial if you are not allowed to see the evidence in advance of the trial so that you can prepare a proper response. You cannot raise a full defence if the element of surprise is used at trial.

Your second defence against the photos will be to raise the issue of the picture's admissibility in court. There are rules for the submission of evidence. In order to show that the digital photos are true versions of an event, the court requires proof that the image has not been altered or changed and that it accurately depicts the scene of the offence.

Digital evidence can be easily modified or tampered with. The burden is upon the Crown to show the images have not been changed. Some general guidelines on digital image evidence are:

  • the photographer should be present in the courtroom;
  • the image should have a time and date stamp unless it obscures a meaningful part of the image (e.g. the licence plate);
  • the image should be printed by a retailer or professional photographer, not simply produced from a computer's printer;
  • the date of the printing, a receipt of payment or other evidence to show that it was printed professionally is also helpful; and
  • the original media the image was stored on must be available to the court.

There are considerable issues with this last point. The original media means the memory card where the image file was first stored after the camera captured the visual data. A compact disk (CD) that cannot be rewritten containing a copy of this image file can be used if the original memory card has been overwritten since the offence date. But the file must be a true copy with the same time and date information as the original. The original file should be in a "raw image format". The RAW image file contains minimally processed data from the image sensor of the camera and is less likely (although not impossible) to have been modified.

There should be a clear chain of custody of the image just like any other piece of evidence:

  • who took the image;
  • where was it stored (hard drive, filing cabinet, etc.);
  • how was it secured;
  • who had access to the image while in storage (i.e. who had access to the computer, network or shared drive); and
  • was there a log or written policy regarding the handling of the image and what evidence is there to show it was done properly.

If there are a series of images, the original file names should be consecutively numbered (DSCF45.jpg, DSCF46.jpg, DSCF47.jpg, etc.) Otherwise some images are missing or have been deleted. There must be an explanation for this. Some of those missing images might have helped your defence.

Was the camera set on "auto" when the picture was taken or was the image sensor modified or manipulated? The brightness or contrast settings could have been changed. There should be an entry in the officer's notes about this. Otherwise it would suggest the image was manipulated in some way and is not a true depiction of the scene at the time of the offence.

For example, the visibility of the parking sign can be questionable in court. Could a reasonable person see the sign? If the image was brightened for a nighttime shot, it is not a true depiction of the visibility of the sign. It is misleading.

While a justice may allow the image to be admitted into evidence, he/she may give it a diminished weight if it hasn't met all the evidentiary requirements listed above.

Further Reading

    • You Won't Believe Your Eyes: Digital Photography as Legal Evidence provides a good overview of digital photos and (mostly) U.S. approaches to photographic and computer evidence.
    • The Admissibility of Digital Photographs in Court provides a quick set of guidelines for law enforcement to preserve and present digital photographic evidence from a U.S. forensic photography instructor.
    • In Digital Patrol a retired police officer gives advice to law enforcement to ensure digital images will be admissible in court - a good approach to follow if you take pictures too.
    • Here is a reading list from the Canadian Police College containing books and articles on digital imaging which will make you a knowledgeable expert.
    • Finally, here is an example, R. c. MacNeil, 2008 QCCS 915 (CanLII) where the Quebec Superior Court puts all of the above into practice in allowing the submission of a video recording as evidence in a murder trial.
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