As published in The Recorder, February 4, 2008.
by Evan Hill
Prompted by a case out of the public defender’s office, a San Francisco supervisor is pushing to change the rules on accessing the city’s surveillance camera footage.
Gerardo Sandoval, a former deputy public defender, presented the legislation to the board on Jan. 8, but off-stage wrangling has stalled the bill in several meetings since.
The changes to the Administrative Code recommended by Sandoval and the board’s public safety committee would give the public defender and other defense attorneys easier access to camera footage, and require the city to hold on to the tapes longer. While the public defender favors the changes, the district attorney’s office says that discovery is adequate.
A city budget analyst has estimated that it would cost $1.55 million for the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, which records and stores the footage, to hold tapes for 30 days, according to Sandoval. But he has said that figure was simply a “verbatim” echo of the DTIS’ request, and that the analysis needed “much more due diligence.”
The impetus for amending the code came from a case involving two men accused of robbery and held in custody for 69 days, the length of time it took the PD’s office to access the surveillance footage that exonerated them, Sandoval said.
According to a press release from the PD’s office, Neil Butler and Robert Dillon were arrested on Aug. 6, 2007, in connection with an early-morning robbery at 14th and Mission streets. But, the release adds, city surveillance cameras two blocks away, at 16th and Mission streets, showed them at that location at the time of the crime.
City policy at the time prevented Deputy PD Eric Quandt from getting the tapes directly, the release says, and dictated they be destroyed in seven days. But Quandt convinced the Department of Emergency Management to preserve the tapes while he requested them from police. The prosecutor on the case eventually reviewed the footage and dropped the charges, the release adds.
“We learned that there was no way for a defense attorney to obtain the tapes without securing the cooperation of the police department,” PD Jeff Adachi wrote in an e-mail to The Recorder.
“I think the issue here is whether the state has a duty to provide reasonable access to crime surveillance tapes when they might prove a person’s innocence,” he added.
The proposed changes to the law would allow defense attorneys with pending cases, not just police, to make written requests to the city to get a copy of a tape.
The law would also require the city to keep the tapes for 30 days instead of the current 14-day maximum.
That doesn’t sit well with the DA’s office.
“There is a well-established discovery process that governs the introduction and sharing of evidence in criminal cases,” said Chief of Policy Tim Silard, adding that nothing in the rules of discovery precludes the defense from getting the footage.
But PD spokeswoman Lea Villegas wrote in an e-mail that holding onto tapes for 30 days is an essential method of preserving evidence when arrests can come late and bureaucracies often move slowly.
Allowing defense attorneys to request the tapes outside the discovery process would make the footage available to a far wider group of lawyers than if it were only available through discovery, a fact that troubles some in law enforcement.
“That’s a valid concern,” Sandoval said. “But it has to be weighed against the fact that currently tapes are destroyed after 14 days, and many times cases are not charged until well after that period.”