Nowadays, police cars have dash cams to record the activities of law enforcement officers while they are on patrol. The footage that these cameras record is frequently used by police and prosecutors as evidence in criminal cases. In addition, the footage can be used by defendants to prove that the charge or another consequence that resulted from a police encounter was improper or unwarranted.
This is exactly what one man in Florida did after he was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving in 2011. Joseph B. Wiggins was stopped by one, Officer Saunders, after Saunders claimed to have seen Wiggins weaving. Wiggins was not convicted of DUI, the charges having been dropped nearly three years ago, but he has continued to contest the suspension of his license by the Department of Motor Safety and Vehicles (“the Department”). The case was finally decided by a divided Florida Supreme Court at the end of January 2017.
At the initial hearing, Wiggins' license suspension was upheld despite the fact that the dash cam video contradicted Saunders' testimony. Wiggins then appealed the decision to the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court. The review of this court was limited to certain issues, including "whether the administrative findings and judgment of the Department were supported by competent, substantial evidence."
The circuit court judge determined that because the video evidence contradicted what Saunders' had stated, thus Saunders' statement and the arrest report could not "constitute competent, substantial evidence." The Department then appealed that decision to the First District Court of Appeal. This court did an even more limited review of the case, ultimately deciding to overturned the lower court's decision. The First District concluded that the circuit court had improperly re-weighed evidence, should have stopped its review once it found evidence that supported the department's ruling, and should accord some deference to the hearing officer as she has experience and heard the original testimony.
The case then came before the Florida Supreme Court after the First District Court certified the following question for the court's review:
Whether a circuit court conducting first-tier certiorari review under section 322.2615, Florida statutes, applies the correct law by rejecting officer testimony as competent, substantial evidence when that testimony is contrary to video evidence.
The high court noted that the circuit court was going to have to look at the evidence in order to determine if there was “competent, substantial evidence” and that DUI cases were different than cases concerning zoning or policy. The court stated that an objective, neutral video that showed what happened in the case should not be ignored in favor of an officer's testimony as people can recall things incorrectly. The court pointed out that "evidence that is confirmed untruthful or nonexistent is not competent, substantial evidence." The court stated that in order to determine if evidence is actually competent and substantial the judge must be able to consider the evidence available, including video evidence.
The court ultimately concluded that "in the limited context of section 322.2615 first tier review of a DUI license suspension, a circuit court applies the correct law by rejecting officer testimony as being competent, substantial evidence when that testimony is contrary to and refuted by objective real-time video evidence."