We hear a lot these days about dashboard camera videos in police cars. As more departments adopt dash cam technology, we will see a corresponding increase in the number of videos from those dash cams. These videos, documenting how the police conduct their activities, are already flooding the internet and punctuating television news shows.
Police departments are not the only ones adopting dashboard video cameras, however. An increasing number of private citizens are also mounting video cameras in their own vehicles for a number of reasons. Donaghue & Labrum has already commented on this trend with a comprehensive article about dash cams which you can read here: https://donaghuelabrum.com2014/09/03/dash-cams-everything-you-need-to-know/.
A common question, however, is whether dash cams are even legal, and whether videos recorded from a private citizen’s dash cam are admissible in court. This article tackles those questions.
Dash Cam Legality
Generally speaking, civilian dash cams are legal in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Pennsylvania and New Jersey, however, specifically prohibit operating a motor vehicle with a screen visible by the driver. Here are the individual statutes:
Law: No motor vehicle operated on a highway can be equipped with television-type receiving equipment forward of the back of the driver’s seat or otherwise visible to the driver.
Statute: 75 Pa.C.S. § 4527 (2007)
- New Jersey
Law: It shall be unlawful to operate upon any public highway a motor vehicle which is equipped with or in which is located a television set so placed that the viewing screen thereof is visible to the driver while operating such vehicle.
Statute: N.J. Stat. § 39:3A-1 (2008)
In other words, a legal dash cam technically should not have a rear monitor that displays what the cam is recording, similar to a portable video camera. The dashboard camera can record its forward-looking view, but the driver cannot watch the recording in progress.
GPS Units Are Regulated, Too
One might argue that GPS monitors constitute a television-type screen specifically intended for viewing by the driver, and the argument would be valid. GPS systems are covered under distracted driver laws and their legality depends on how they are used. For example, if while you are driving you are focused on inputting data to your GPS instead of watching the road, you are clearly distracted – and clearly in violation.
New Jersey and Delaware have very specific laws governing the use of cell phones and other hand held devices while driving. This shouldn’t come as a surprise — anything that takes a driver’s attention away from the road is potentially dangerous and therefore illegal.
A Dash Cam Doesn’t Blink
In the case of the police, a dashboard-mounted video camera has a clear purpose in enforcing the law. The dash cam records the actions of law enforcement officers and provides a visual record of events that can be used in court.
Dash cam videos are also used to identify and apprehend criminals. Here’s a rather disturbing example of the value of the unblinking dash cam:
This video, which received a tremendous amount of airtime, shows a Manchester Township, PA police officer stopping a suspect for moving violations and suspected DUI. As the suspect exited the vehicle, he drew a pistol and fired three rounds at close range. The police officer miraculously avoided being hit and returned fire. The suspect disappeared, but his abandoned car was found several days later with a significant amount of blood on the driver’s side. The wounded suspect remained at large as of mid-December.
When the police are following proper procedures while making contact with a person or persons, the dash cam can be a tremendous asset. However, when things go wrong and the police act improperly and outside of procedures, the dash cam records those instances as well. There have been numerous cases over the past several years involving improper police behavior that have created tremendous public backlash.
The Purpose of a Personal Dash Cam
The same thing can happen with a personal dashboard camera. Many people use them to create a visual record of what happens while operating a personal vehicle. The purpose is to provide evidence during an accident or perhaps a traffic violation.
The problem is that the dash cam also records infractions and improper driving behavior. So if a driver commits an illegal act and the camera records it, there is a visual record of the infraction that doesn’t allow much leeway in terms of guilt if the video recording makes its way into court.
The Law Is Clear on Dash Cam Admissibility
Video recordings from dash cam videos are almost always permitted in court. Presently, there are no laws on the books that prohibit the admission of dash cam videos in court. You should still be careful, however, even though dashboard cameras are legal for both the police and you. As long as the dash cams are visually recording activities that occur in public view, there is no problem.
There are, however, laws that govern making audio recordings and, in certain circumstances, video recordings as well.
In Pennsylvania, the Wiretap Act prohibits making an audio recording of a conversation unless both parties are aware of the recording. There are also so-called “Peeper Laws” that prohibit making video recordings of people who are in a private setting such as a bedroom, dressing room, or restroom.
In other words, if somehow your car is facing this kind of private setting, turn the dash cam off. And if your dash cam has the capability to record sound as well as video, you must advise the other party that what they say is being recorded.
Choose Your Dash Cam Carefully
As with just about any electronic device, there is a wide range of dash cam options to choose from. The camera you choose should be based on what you intend to use it for. If you are simply trying to provide visual documentation, a single-lens model that records what’s in front of you is probably sufficient. If you are trying to keep tabs on a younger driver, a dual lens camera that records both inside and outside of the car is your best option.
Many dash cams include audio recording capability as well. Be careful with these in light of the regulations mentioned regarding the audio recording of other people without their consent.
If you are planning to use your dash cam to document your actions in the case of an accident, it might be a good idea to purchase a model that has a GPS feature. An integrated GPS will provide time and location data that corresponds to the video recording. This information is also admissible in court and can prove useful when establishing the factual record of what happened in an accident.
If You Need a Dash Cam for Court, You Need a Lawyer, Too
If you have an accident and you have a working dash cam, you also have evidence. As we have seen, that might be a good thing — or it might not. Additionally, the process of introducing your dash cam video into a court proceeding is probably not something that you are experienced at doing.
Whether you have a dash cam or not, if you have an accident, the attorneys at Donahue & Labrum can help you. Our skillful team will sort through the evidence, determine what’s good — and what’s not — and take the appropriate actions in court.
If you’ve been unfortunate enough to have an automobile accident, contact the experienced lawyers at Donaghue & Labrum today.