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Video forensics requires same respect as other evidence

The justice system needs to take video evidence more seriously, Crystal Beach, Ont., forensic video expert Michael Plaxton tells

“In my experience, it doesn’t seem to be treated the same way as other evidence,” says Plaxton, principal at New Media Forensics. For example, he says a Crown attorney would never think of calling a front-line police officer to testify about a fingerprint match in a criminal case.

“You have properly trained fingerprint examiners who have been through all the necessary training and certification to perform that analysis,” he says. “Yet, they seem to have no qualms about having a layperson give testimony as an expert in video evidence.”

Even in the collection of evidence, Plaxton says some officers take a much less stringent approach to video than other types of evidence.

“You get a DVD of the surveillance from the owner of the premises, and it just goes in someone’s drawer, as opposed to being bagged, tagged, and logged in the same way as any other piece of evidence from the crime scene,” he says.

Plaxton, who has been qualified as an expert in video forensics for more than 25 civil and criminal trials in Ontario and Alberta, often sees television post-production workers or others with experience filming called to perform the same role.

“I do find it a bit troublesome when people are held out as experts whose experience is actually quite limited,” he says. “They might be knowledgeable in how the clip of the video was recorded or certain technical aspects, like the frame rate, but lack the expertise to process that video in a proper forensic fashion.”

Plaxton says the skills required in post-production work are somewhat at cross-purposes with forensic analysis, since footage generally needs to be compressed to work on televisions, potentially distorting the picture and losing detail.

“In the forensic world, we want that to occur as little as possible, if at all, and we strive to not let it happen,” he says. “It’s important that courts, investigators, and lawyers are aware of certain aspects of forensic video analysis that other video experts would not be familiar with.”

While there are no rules about the qualifications or training an individual must have in order to be recognized by a court, Plaxton points out that the stature of video forensics has grown internationally in recent years.

For instance, training and certification are available via the industry group Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association International (LEVA). In addition, the U.S.-based National Institute of Science and Technology, which develops processes and standards for the forensically sound treatment of various evidence types, has created its own working group on imaging technology.

Plaxton, in addition to his own experience during more than a decade working in the field of digital imaging and forensic video analysis for police forces in Ontario, is also the only sole practitioner in the province certified by LEVA.

“I would like to see experts in video analysis going into court with some background or even awareness of the forensic side of it, including these standards and working groups,” he says. 

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