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While a new smartphone app allowing the public to send texts, photos and short video clips directly to Crime Stoppers is a sign of the times, Toronto criminal lawyer Patrice Band says video tips may raise a new set of issues for the accused and those behind the camera.
In what is reportedly the first program of its kind in North America, the interactive app allows people to relay live and anonymous information to police about a crime that has been committed or one that is in progress.
However, Band says an app like this raises concerns around the authenticity and authorship of the videos that will be submitted by people anonymously, which is different from the classic telephone or even text “tip.”
“The difference is that a telephone or text tip is used by police to launch or pursue an investigation. It does not become evidence at trial,” he says.
“If a videotape appears to depict a criminal offence taking place, the police and Crown Attorney will undoubtedly seek to rely on it and use it at trial, as they do with security camera footage and other videos,” he adds.
While at first blush the app does not seem controversial, and in many cases, may not be, Band says the authorship of a video can raise important issues – not necessarily about the identity of the person holding the camera, but in terms of specifying where and when the video was taken, as well as whether it is authentic and unadulterated.
“Videotape, like photos, can be altered and edited in various ways and may not necessarily mirror reality. We all know this, yet videotape evidence is almost irresistibly conclusive,” he explains.
“In the case of an anonymously submitted videotape – unlike other types of evidence – the police will not take a statement from its creator. So, if the prosecution wants to rely on the videotape as evidence at trial, and the anonymity of the author of the video is preserved, it will be difficult or impossible for the defence to challenge the authenticity or accuracy of the videotape. This could raise concerns about the possibility of wrongful convictions,” he adds.
Band also notes that another potential and unexpected consequence is that the maker of the video may put him or herself in danger by providing the videotape in the same way that a confidential informant can sometimes be in danger of retribution if his or her identity is discovered by the accused.
“If the prosecution intends to use the video at trial, it must be disclosed to the defence. It is quite possible that the accused will be able to determine who was in a position to shoot the video. In my view, because it can be such compelling evidence, an authentic videotape depicting the accused committing a criminal offence will be hard for prosecutors to resist,” he says.
“Members of the public might want read the “fine print” before providing a videotape anonymously,” he adds.