Digital Imagery in the Courtroom

Original on the Kodak website

Is digital imagery admissible in court? Without question, yes!

There’s much confusion on this point, primarily because digital technologies make it relatively easy to manipulate images, which makes digital imaging technology suspect in the courtroom. The problem is, digital technology also makes it easy to alter film images and video footage.

For instance, a malicious operator could take a film negative to a professional photo lab, scan the image into a computer, modify it electronically, and write the new image to a strip of the same film. This could make the fraudulent film strip highly undetectable. Should this potential for fraud put suspicion on all imagery presented in court?

Imagery Is Not Evidence
Remember. Imagery is not evidence. Instead, the testimony of a witness is evidence, and the image is an “exhibit” to that testimony. Ultimately, all evidence in a police case revolves around the integrity and veracity of the witness presenting the image, who must demonstrate its authenticity to the court.

Furthermore, a person testifying under fear of perjury must explain what the image shows, why it is relevant, how it was acquired, how it came to be in court, and what it implies. The issue therefore is much greater than the image by itself.

Alleviating Suspicion
The best way to alleviate suspicion about a witness’ testimony is to be able to say: “We have standard operating procedures, and we followed them in preparing these images.”

Successful use of digital technology in the courtroom is the result of controlling the procedures by which the images were captured, handled, archived and secured. Agencies planning to acquire digital technology should develop standard operating procedures (SOPs), and then ensure that all staff follow them. SOPs are one of the best ways to dispel suspicion in the courtroom.


Establishing Procedures to Ensure Image Security

It is recommended that law enforcement and public safety agencies establish standard operating procedures (SOPs) to dispel any doubt about the integrity of digital imagery for evidentiary purposes.

In a crime lab where a digital camera is being used, the operators should take their pictures, preview them, and delete those that do not show the intended artifacts. Those to be preserved should be copied to Writable CD Media, along with the archive files that the camera creates. (An archive file is a file created by the digital camera that includes the image data, as well as time, date, exposure and other camera settings, including GPS data if so equipped.)

Transfer to writable CD media has the effect of creating a point of reference, or “reference image.” Once data is written to a Writable CD, it cannot be removed or altered. The disc, which is uniquely identifiable by a visible number and barcode, either has the right information in the right place, or it does not. Tampering can be immediately suspected if data is misplaced.

Once a reference image has been created, it is a good idea to keep track of all steps followed in preparing images for use in court. This can be done by keeping a manual log, or using a macro recorder in an imaging software package, such as ADOBE PHOTOSHOP. (A macro recorder is a pre-defined set of instructions designed to adjust an image’s color balance, contrast, tonal values, despeckling, edge-sharpening qualities etc., to make it easier to view.)

Film images can be preserved in the same way by digitizing negatives or prints with a scanner, and converting them to Writable CD Media. Otherwise, film images must be kept in a secure and well-managed physical file to accomplish the same degree of protection.

These instructions or preferences should be written into the SOP. Log contents should be stored with the image to be presented in court.

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