Technology has dramatically changed the landscape of criminal law procedure, and ultimately criminal convictions, in Texas. Updated DNA testing exonerates the wrongly-accused, while incriminating the guilty. Traffic cameras are commonplace on Main Street, clocking speeding motorists who are subject to fines and penalties—and bad feelings. Recently in Arkansas, recordings from Amazon’s Echo artificial intelligence device have been used by prosecutors as evidence in a murder trial. As digital evidence evolves rapidly, so must the evidentiary rules supporting admissibility. In this late-breaking case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considers one man’s conviction for theft and burglary vis a vis the admissibility of “picture only” video footage.
State v. Fowler (Tex. Crim. App. 2018)
Fresh Tire Marks Lead to a Suspicious Dollar Store Receipt
Law enforcement was called to the scene of a burglary at a business in Royse City, Texas. Police discovered disarray; cut wires, mangled cables, and bolt cutters were seized as evidence, but no suspects were apprehended. One month later, police were called to investigate the same scene for another burglary. This time, ATV tracks led police to a nearby field where they found a receipt from the local Family Dollar store mere feet away from a stolen ATV. Even more curious were the items listed on the receipt, which included duct tape and utility knives. Police used the date, time stamp, and the address on the receipt to request video footage from inside the store. Employees at Family Dollar provided investigators with time and date-stamped footage that corresponded with the receipt found at the scene of the crime. Police recorded the incriminating footage on their body cameras, as recording from a VHS cassette proved time-consuming and clunky. Although the footage was non-audio “picture only,” it showed a suspect purchasing the items that were reflected on the receipt found at the crime scene. Further, the footage time and date stamps placed the individual inside of Family Dollar at a certain time, on a particular day.
Leveraging all of the information learned from the receipts, the fact that the ATV was stolen, and the video footage, law enforcement soon had a suspect—Jamel Fowler. Fowler was convicted of theft of property for stealing the ATV and was sentenced by a jury to two years imprisonment. Fowler appealed. On appeal, the court reversed the trial court’s conviction and sentencing, holding that “trial court committed reversible error by admitting an unauthenticated videotape exhibit into evidence.” The State of Texas appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals to determine whether prosecutors may prove authenticity of video footage without the testimony of someone who either witnessed what the video depicts or is familiar with the functioning of the recording device. In other words, is the video of a video at Family Dollar admissible as evidence against Fowler? In order to answer that question, the CCA looked to Texas Rule of Evidence 901.
Texas Rule of Evidence 901 and the Authenticity Requirement
Texas Rule of Evidence 901 governs the authentication requirement for the admissibility of evidence. Typically, to satisfy the requirement of authenticating evidence, the person offering the evidence must produce items or data sufficient to support a finding that the item or data is what the proponent claims it is.
“Authenticity may be established with evidence of distinctive characteristics and the like, which include [t]he appearance, contents, substance, internal patterns, or other distinctive characteristics of the item, taken together with all the circumstances.”
TEX. R. EVID. 901(b)(4); see Druery v. State, 225 S.W.3d 491, 502 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). Conclusive proof of authenticity before allowing admission of disputed evidence is not required.
Applying Rule 901 to a “Picture Only” Video of a Video
May the proponent of a video sufficiently prove its authenticity without the testimony of someone who either witnessed what the video depicts or is familiar with the functioning of the recording device? The Court answers that, yes, it is possible, given the facts.
Here, the Court acknowledged the argument of the defense in the appeal: “The court of appeals’s point is well-taken—the State could have done more [to prove up the evidence presented]. However, even though the most common way to authenticate a video is through the testimony of a witness with personal knowledge who observed the scene, that is not the only way.”
The Court reasoned that video recordings without audio are treated as photographs and are properly authenticated when it can be proven that the images accurately represent the scene in question and are relevant to a disputed issue. Huffman v. State, 746 S.W.2d 212, 222 (Tex. Crim. App. 1988). The Court stated that (1) the officer’s in-person request of the manager of the Family Dollar store to pull the surveillance video on a certain date at a certain time; (2) that the distinctive characteristic that there is a date and time stamp on the videotape; and (3) the fact that the date and time on the videotape correspond to the date and time on the receipt that was found within three feet of the ATV; (4) the fact that the videotape pulled by the manager reveals Fowler at the store on that date at that time purchasing the items listed on the receipt that was found near the stolen ATV, were enough, together, to authenticate the video. The video was sufficiently authenticated to be admissible into evidence. The evidence strongly pointed to Fowler and, accordingly, his conviction was upheld.