Oklahoma Defendants Denied Video Evidence

The recent controversy from Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Daniel Martin stopping and scuffling with Creek Nation paramedic/ambulance attendant Maurice White brought new focus on the video cameras placed in the Highway Patrol cruisers.

The Department of Public Safety, the parent of the Highway Patrol, spent $1.4 million just in the past year installing the vehicles with these state-of-the-art digital video cameras. Upon completion of the latest order of cameras, there will be 368 of the WatchGuard DV-1 cameras.  Each vehicle’s video system costs about $4,500.00, manufactured by WatchGuard Video LLC of Plano, Texas.

About the expense of the cameras, Lieutenant Colonel John Harris, deputy chief and  director of the patrols’s transportation division said, “It’s an expensive piece of equipment, but you get what you pay for.  It’s a good product for law enforcement.”  Well, what about the tax payers who purchased the equipment?  Don’t they get to see the contents of the video recordings pursuant to Open Records requests?  Too bad.   You don’t get the benefit of the cameras.  You, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, Mr. and Mrs. Voting Citizen, are not important enough. You only get to pay for them.

Some other expenses by the Highway Patrol are $3,621,340 for gasoline since last July and $671,477 for vehicle maintenance since last July.  The Highway Patrol has 350 troopers on patrol for 96,000 miles of road patrolled ever year in Oklahoma.

The new cameras are set to begin recording automatically an time a trooper turns on his front and rear emergency lights. Footage is captured from pursuits, traffic stops and other emergency situations.  Troopers can also manually turn on the cameras in other situations where only the emergency lights are used, such as helping motorists or acting for traffic control. As a criminal defense lawyer, the traffic stops are the situations I am most interested in.

Responsibility for safekeeping of the DVD-recorded video evidence falls to a supervisor. Each of the 13 field traffic troops in the state has a supervisor.  Other supervisors review the recordings from time to time for performance evaluations of the troopers.  These are reviewed especially when a complaint is made.  The proof can be in the recording.

The patrol began using the in-car videos a decade ago.  Some of the troopers were hesitant about using them at first.  “It didn’t take very long for these troopers to figure out that 99.1 per cent of the time, they realize that those vindicate them,” Lt. Col. West said.  In such cases, the Highway Patrol readily discloses the content of the video. They like what’s on the recording, so they show everybody.

But what about the other 0.9 percent of the time?  That is what the public, including criminal defense lawyers, want to know.  What about when the results show a misdeed by a trooper?  Why is the Highway Patrol covering up malfeasance?  “I can assure you it’s not about secrecy,” Lt. Col West claimed.  Certainly not.  Of course not.  How could anyone suspect such a thing?  It’s only about secrecy when it accrues to the benefit of wrong-doing troopers.  When it’s to the benefit of the Highway Patrol, no secrecy is needed.  You can see where the public ranks in the importance ladder of state government.

The Oklahoma Open Records Act exempts public access to the contents of these recordings.  The legislature enacted this change in the law in 2005 at the request of the Highway Patrol.  Of course, the Highway Patrol did release, voluntarily, the footage from Trooper Martin’s scuffle with the Creek Nation ambulance paramedic. There was just too much pressure in that case, and, from that incident, the press learned they are not allowed to get the video footage from Open Records requests.  The only other time the Highway Patrol has voluntarily released video footage was the 2003 killing of Trooper Nikky Green in Cotton County.  The Patrol released the footage to help the Patrol catch the shooter in that case.

Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas make their state police video camera recordings available through those states’ open records, unlike Oklahoma’s denial of such access.  Arkansas releases their videos to the public after a case reaches the initial court stages.  The Texas Department of Public Safety releases videos taken by a trooper dashboard camera after an investigation has been completed.  In Missouri, the video recording is released after the case has been completed at the trial level.   Kansas is like Oklahoma: secret.  Their legislature, like Oklahoma’s, has decreed that their citizens cannot be trusted with such things.

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