What really happened? For centuries, courts have been magisterially blind, cloistered far away from the contested events that they adjudicate, relying primarily on testimony to get the story – or competing stories. Whether oral or written, this testimony is profoundly human, with all the passions, partisanship and imperfections of human perception. Now a revolution is coming. Across the nation, police departments are deploying body cameras. Much of the current focus is on how body cameras will impact policing and public opinion. Yet there is another important audience for body camera footage – the courts that forge constitutional criminal procedure, the primary conduct rules for police. This article explores what the coming power to replay a wider array of police enforcement actions than ever before means for judicial review and criminal procedure law. The body camera revolution means an evidentiary revolution for courts, transforming the traditional reliance on reports and testimony and filling in gaps in a domain where defendants are often silent.
The article envisions a future where much of the main staple events of criminal procedure law will be recorded. Analyzing body camera policies from departments across the nation reveals that this future is unfolding now. The article proposes rules of judicial review to cultivate regular use of the audiovisual record in criminal procedure cases and discourage gaps and omissions due to selective recording. The article also offers rules of restraint against the seductive power of video to seem to depict the unmediated truth. Camera perspective can subtly shape judgments. Personal worldviews impact image interpretation. And there is often a difference between the legally relevant truth and the depiction captured on video. Care must be taken therefore to apply the proper perceptual yardsticks and reserve interpretive questions for the appropriate fact-finders.