Illinois Bar Journal

June 2015Volume 103Number 6Page 10

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Defendant obtains dashcam recordings through FOIA request

After police said dashcam videos of a traffic-related marijuana arrest didn't exist, the defendant announced he already had them. How? He got them in response to a FOIA request.

Late last March, a Madison County judge dismissed a misdemeanor marijuana charge during the trial because prosecutors had failed to turn over dashboard camera recordings to the defendant's attorney. Patrick Luchtefeld was the passenger in a car that had been stopped because it lacked a light over its license plate.

Arresting officer Charles Allen performed a field sobriety and breathalyzer test on the driver. The driver passed both. Allen testified that he found a small amount of marijuana in a baggie near the passenger side seat. Luchtefeld was arrested and charged with misdemeanor possession of cannabis.

At trial, the Madison County State's Attorney's Office claimed that it was not in possession of any dashboard camera recordings. Arresting officer Charles Allen testified that the dashboard camera videos did not exist.

At that point, Luchtefeld informed his attorney, Thomas Maag, that they did exist - and he was in possession of them. Shortly after his arrest, Luchtefeld requested the dashboard camera videos from the Highland Police Department via a Freedom of Information Act request. He received four CDs containing the recordings.

When Maag disclosed the existence of the videos to the court, Associate Judge David Grounds, stated, "The circumstance in this case is very disturbing, because while there was testimony that there may have been a malfunction of the dash-cam, the very existence of a video appears to have been kept from the state's attorney's office." He questioned how such an error could have occurred, stating that it was an "extraordinary step where an individual" obtains evidence via a FOIA request whose existence "is unknown to the prosecuting authority." Judge Grounds then dismissed the state's case against Luchtefeld.

Kladis authorizes discovery of dashcam videos in misdemeanor cases

Bill Schroeder, a law professor at Southern Illinois University, says that the Illinois Supreme Court's discovery rules only apply to felony cases. See Illinois Supreme Court 411. In 1974, the Illinois Supreme Court stated that, in misdemeanor cases, the state is required to provide the defense with its "witness list, any confession of the defendant, evidence negating the defendant's guilt," and other evidence as required by statutory or case law. People v. Schmidt, 56 Ill. 2d 572, 575 (1974). The court there found no reason to deviate from the rules it established in 1971 - the discovery required by case law and statute was sufficient for misdemeanor cases.

However, Schroeder says, in People v. Kladis, the Illinois Supreme Court expanded the scope of discovery in misdemeanor trials to include video recordings. People v. Kladis, 2011 IL 110920. In Kladis, the court considered whether Schmidt remained relevant almost 40 years later. It found that the ruling in Schmidt did not "set forth a rigid list" but was intended to be more flexible, taking into account the "fundamental changes which have occurred in law and society since that ruling." Id. ¶ 26.

It noted that in the time since its holding in Schmidt, the use of video evidence has become common in most criminal trials; it has also been used in the prosecution and defense of misdemeanor charges. The Kladis court also found that "video recording of traffic stops has now become an integral part of these encounters." Id. ¶ 29.

The state in Kladis argued that requiring the discovery of recordings in misdemeanor cases would impose an undue burden on law enforcement. The court rejected this argument, relying on legislative enactments that mandate the capture and storage of dashboard camera recordings. Specifically, the court pointed to statutory language forbidding the destruction of dashboard camera footage when it is deemed evidence in any civil, criminal, or administrative proceeding.

Finally, the court found that the legislative intent behind the statutory framework was to provide an objective account of the interaction between a police officer and the citizen. The dashboard camera video in Luchtefeld's case was discoverable under Kladis, and the state's failure to provide it was a sanctionable discovery violation.

Sending a message

In Luchtfeld's case, Schroeder says, the judge's choice to dismiss the case rather than impose a lesser sanction was a "discretionary call." Schroeder believes that the judge wanted to send a message to local prosecutors.

Schroeder declined to speculate about why the recordings did not end up in the prosecution's hands. Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons said footage was stored on the Highland Police Departments servers but had been inadvertently been moved from the evidence storage system to one used for data subject to FOIA requests.

Schroeder says the likelihood of another case like Luchtfeld's is small. He notes that the publicity the case generated has probably alerted other police departments to the risks presented by poor recordkeeping.

Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Sulaiman Law Group, Ltd.

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