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Police utilize video camera against drunks Use of tape in court, influence on drivers still under review


A picture may be worth a thousand words, but "guilty" may not be among them.

Since June, several Maryland law enforcement agencies have been using pictures -- videotapes to be precise -- to catch suspected drunken drivers, capturing on tape cars weaving along the road and motorists stumbling as they try to walk a straight line.

But the verdict is still out on whether the tapes, made with cameras provided free by an insurance company, are making a difference in prosecuting motorists.

State troopers have videotaped about 15 suspected drunken drivers since cameras were assigned to four barracks in Maryland. But none of the cases has come to trial.

Howard county officers videotaped 18 suspected drunken drivers. All were convicted of driving while intoxicated or a lesser bTC charge -- but not one videotape was shown in court.

In Baltimore County, the police decided not to even use the free video cameras after testing them in the field.

That is just a sampling of the variation in use of the videotapes. At midyear, Aetna Life and Casualty Insurance Co. had provided more than 1,000 video cameras at $1,300 apiece to 152 police departments nationally.

In Maryland, police in Baltimore, Cambridge, Rockville use the cameras. In addition to Howard, the counties using the equipment include Anne Arundel, Harford, Frederick, Prince George's, Montgomery and Washington.

The large insurer, which says it pays out $200 million annually as a result of drunken driving accidents, claimed that few videotaped suspects opted for trial. In Columbus, Ohio, the Sheriff's Department reported that 89 percent of the cases in which drunk drivers were taped resulted in convictions, compared to a previous conviction rate of 77 percent.

While the videotape experience may differ between Maryland departments, officers trained to use the cameras say the tape is not a substitute for a patrolman's observations or a blood-level alcohol test, the primary evidence used to convict a drunk driver.

It is just another weapon in the fight against drunken driving.

"This is a tool for the borderline cases," said Sgt. Lee Goldman, a supervisor in the Howard County Police Department's traffic division.

"That's all it is, another tool to show the judge how [the driver] was," said State Police Cpl. Michael E. Davey, who coordinated his agency's field tests of the cameras. "If they turn on the TV set and watch the tape, it's all there -- if the guy is weaving or if he can't walk toe-to-heel, if he falls down."

But, the corporal added, "If you have a weak case, and it's weak from the beginning, that tape is going to hurt you, not help you."

The cameras used by most police agencies are mounted on the --board of a patrol car, and only the action of the suspected drunken driver is filmed. Police don't use the audio component of the camera because of concerns over possible violations of state wiretap laws.

But the State Police plan to seek an amendment in the approaching General Assembly session that would allow officers record voices in suspected drunken driving cases, Corporal Davey said.

When Baltimore County police tested the cameras in the field, they had concerns about the quality of the evidence captured on film. They asked the advice of county prosecutors.

"I reviewed a number of the tapes and was not impressed by what they showed," said Howard B. Merker, a deputy state's attorney in Baltimore County. He said the tapes did not accurately portray what a police officer had observed before he stopped a motorist, like a car weaving down a road.

Once a videotape is made of a suspected drunken driver, he said, it becomes a piece of evidence -- "good or bad for the state or the defense" -- that must be shared with the motorist, who can use it to defend himself.

While the result of a blood-alcohol test is "the stronger evidence," Mr. Merker imagined a scenario in which a videotape shows "an alcoholic who blows a .25 [the legal definition of intoxication is .10 and above] but who can walk a straight line better than you or I."

In Baltimore, police have videotaped about two dozen suspected drunken drivers since June. Of the seven or eight cases that have gone to trial, all resulted in convictions. But only one videotape of a suspected drunken driver has been shown in court so far. And it was the defendant, Donald Philip O'Mara, who asked to have the tape played for the judge.

After his arrest Sept. 15, Mr. O'Mara refused to take a blood-alcohol test. But his lawyer knew the state had an expert witness -- the arresting officer, Sgt. Robert L. Frisch, trained city police in how to detect drugged and drunken drivers. And there was a videotape.

After reviewing the tape, Babak Movahedi, Mr. O'Mara's attorney, said he didn't think itwas "convincing evidence of guilt."

"If there was any doubt in the judge's mind," he said, "it would be to my benefit."

Mr. Movahedi's goal was to reduce the charge from driving while intoxicated to driving while under the influence.

On the tape, Mr. O'Mara stumbled as he got out of the car. When he tried to walk heel-to-toe on an imaginary line, he repeatedly raised his arms for balance -- against the officer's instructions.

And while he held his right foot aloft as the officer demonstrated, he didn't hold it there for 30 seconds as he was told to do. But on Dec. 3, Mr. O'Mara was found guilty of the lesser charge. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $500.

The jail time was later reduced on the condition that Mr. O'Mara -- whom police said had two previous out-of-state drunken driving convictions -- enroll in an inpatient alcohol rehabilitation center.

Still, Sergeant Frisch says the videotape can be an asset.

"The fact that I have something to back up what I say makes me feel better. Plus the court doesn't have to worry about the officer embellishing anything," he said. "You'll see exactly how it was, the way it was."

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