Failure To Preserve Police Dash Cam Video Results in Sanctions
In Woods v. Scissons, No. CV-17-08038-PCT-GMS (D. Ariz. Aug. 14, 2019), an Arizona Chief District judge granted in part and denied in part Plaintiff’s motion for sanctions for spoliation of video footage of an arrest involving Plaintiff and Defendant, a police officer with the Prescott Police Department. In this case, the Court ruled that non-party City of Prescott violated their duty to preserve dash cam video of the alleged incident but left to the jury the question of intent in determining the appropriate sanction.
This case stems from an arrest incident in June 2016 in which Plaintiff alleges the use of excessive force by Defendant. Plaintiff alleges that after Defendant placed him in handcuffs, Defendant struck Plaintiff several times while laying on the pavement, resulting in a fracture to his lower back. Subsequently, the Prescott Police Department Review Board determined that no “criminal, civil or Department Policy violations” had occurred during the arrest. Consequently, Plaintiff filed this action in February 2017 and later filed a motion for spoliation sanctions, arguing that non-party City of Prescott violated their duty to preserve ESI of the alleged incident–video footage automatically captured by the cameras in the various officers’ vehicles–by allowing the footage to be automatically deleted from the police department’s systems.
In ruling on the matter, the District Judge notes that at least three dash cams would likely have been recording the incident in question. As such, the Judge states “the available evidence, taken as a whole, establishes that dash cam footage was recorded by at least two vehicles that could have been relevant to Plaintiff’s claim.” The Court also “decline[d] to assume that any recordings from the vehicles in question would have been irrelevant to Plaintiff’s claim”, stating “the footage’s value cannot simply be replaced by having eyewitness testimony regarding Plaintiff’s arrest—much of the value provided by video footage is that it allows a jury to make its own determination.”
The Court also ruled that the City of Prescott (which was paying for legal representation for Defendant) “had a duty to preserve any video recordings from the responding officers’ dash cams once it knew that litigation was reasonably likely” and “the parties do not dispute that any footage has been erased.”
As a result, the Court granted in part and denied in part Plaintiff’s motion for sanctions, ordering the following: “Because there is evidence that video recordings of the alleged event existed but were not preserved, the jury will hear evidence concerning the potential existence of video footage and will be instructed that it may consider that evidence along with all other evidence in reaching its decision. It will also be instructed that if it determines that the Police Department destroyed evidence and did so with the intent to deprive Plaintiff of the use of the video footage, it may infer that the footage would have been favorable to Plaintiff. However, the Court declines to give the instruction as requested by Plaintiff because the question of intent will be submitted to the jury.”