Expanded Use of Digital Recordings: Prosecutors Work To Obtain Amazon Echo In Homicide Case

January 10, 2017

Numerous media reports in the last year have focused on recordings in police shooting cases, whether it be video or audio recordings, captured by officers or others at the scene of a shooting. While recorded footage occasionally capture instances where a police officer may have crossed the line, attorneys at HCB usually find that videotape evidence is both critical and helpful in defending civil rights cases filed against them by suspects and citizens.

For starters, in our experience, video evidence often contradicts narratives offered by civil plaintiffs alleging that rogue police officers have acted against them without justification or basis. Even better for police officers, judges often are willing to grant summary judgment in cases with videotape evidence because they can view the videotape themselves and see that a plaintiff’s narrative is false. These cases would otherwise have to proceed to trial because “officer said/suspect said” disputes are usually considered by courts to involve questions of fact which must be decided by a jury and not the court.

Moreover, police officers and prosecutors are growing increasingly creative in their attempts to find and use other forms of video and audio evidence that may help government officials solve crimes. Last month, in the first known case of its kind, prosecutors in Arkansas requested that Amazon provide audiotape and other records from an Echo digital assistance found in the home of James Bates. Bates had been charged with killing another man who was found dead in Bates’ hot tub in November 2015, allegedly as a result of strangulation. The Amazon Echo is an “always on” digital assistant which can answer questions and order items, but the Echo operates in the cloud and supports a voice recognition program, “Alexa.” In Bates’ case, officials hope that Alexa may have captured recordings relevant to the alleged homicide, although the Echo keeps less than 60 seconds of recorded sound in its storage buffer.

Amazon rebuffed the prosecutors’ search warrant, claiming the warrant to be overbroad, and Bates’ attorney, not surprisingly, supported Amazon’s attempts to protect Bates’ privacy. With Amazon stating that it will not release certain customer information without a valid legal demand (presumably in that case a court order), the matter is now set for a hearing in March 2017. While Bates’ case involves a criminal and not a civil matter, it is clear that both local government officials and plaintiffs in civil cases will be attempting in the future to test these waters to obtain any type of video or audio evidence that may help their cases.

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