There are a plethora of videos available online showing people doing dumb things. This raises the question of how individuals’ privacy rights should be balanced against the public right to be informed – goodness knows we’ve all committed our fair share of stupidity. Flippant answers aside, this issue quickly becomes complicated as you start to unpack it.
What if the behavior filmed is not just amusing but dangerous or illegal?
When do you have an obligation to turn recorded footage over to the authorities?
When does using it in any way become libel?
Who “owns” the footage for copyright purposes?
Is a recording that’s legally obtained always admissible as evidence in court?
The question of how to use dashcam footage legally isn’t addressed in your camera’s manual. We’ll do our best to provide you with some practical answers.
Where Can and Can’t You Film?
American law is much less strict than that of European countries, where recording wherever you drive and keeping the footage indefinitely gets really complicated. In fact, European versions of many dashcams actually delete footage after a few minutes unless it’s deliberately saved.
One exception to where you can record (meaning, where your recorded footage may or may not be admissible) is on private property. Just like movie theaters that won’t allow you to bring a video camera into the cinema itself, you may also be asked to turn off your dashcam when visiting a sensitive site like a military base.
If, for example, you record an incident inside a parking garage that indicates negligence on the part of the management, they may object to footage taken without their consent.
This brings us to an issue that’s often misunderstood: are you allowed to film the police?
In general, the answer is “yes” in all U.S. states, as long as you don’t interfere with them doing their job and (in some states) you don’t try to hide the fact that you’re recording.
Unfortunately, the cops themselves often don’t like being filmed. Dashcam and cellphone footage are frequently used as evidence of police misconduct.
Recording Inside a Taxi or Rideshare Vehicle
A couple of months ago, in the city where I live, a woman was murdered. The last person known to have seen her alive was a taxi driver. Fortunately, he had a dashcam covering the interior of his vehicle installed. This showed the woman getting into and out of his taxi unharmed, and what could have turned into an hours-long interrogation was resolved in thirty minutes.
A dashcam with an interior view, like the Toguard CE41, is therefore almost a must-have for anyone who transports passengers for money. This particular camera can record audio and works well in the dark thanks to integrated infrared lighting, which are important factors in this kind of environment. Simply installing one has been shown to deter assaults on drivers and makes resolving disputes about payment and service much, much easier.
In legal terms, the main requirement is that passengers have to be informed that they’re under surveillance.
Practically speaking, a clearly visible sign inside the vehicle stating this fact is sufficient. Like those software license agreements nobody actually reads, this constitutes a binding agreement even if a person claims they didn’t see the sign.
A passenger may request that you stop recording. However, you are not obligated to do so any more than a convenience store owner has to shut off their CCTV system every time somebody asks.
Using Dashcam Footage in Court
There are three main reasons why you might want to use video recorded on the road as legal evidence.
- To sue a negligent driver for property or personal injury damages,
- To defend yourself against the same, or
- To prove that a traffic violation charge is bogus.
A fourth scenario, which we can also throw in here, is where you simply want to show your footage to your insurance company to support your side of the story. Insurance companies prefer to avoid legal wranglings, especially against other, equally well-funded competitors. This means that they probably won’t go to bat for you unless another party is clearly at fault – being able to prove this will at the very least prevent them from jacking up your premiums.
In the first two cases, having dashcam footage available will speed up proceedings significantly, saving you money on attorney’s fees. Without it, determining who is at fault in a traffic accident is sometimes almost like reading tea leaves. In the absence of clear evidence, blame is often assigned on a 50/50 basis, which could unfairly leave you on the hook for major medical and car repair bills. As a visual aid, it’s also incredibly valuable in swaying a jury’s opinion.
Of course, this footage will only be of value if it’s clear enough to discern details and shows all relevant events – if not, the judge may simply toss it out.
Dashcams are equally useful when contesting traffic fines and even more serious offenses (this is of course assuming that you’re not actually guilty). Much as we’d all prefer it to be otherwise, local governments often use traffic enforcement as a source of revenue instead of a public safety measure. Law enforcement personnel’s word is usually taken as fact, even though they can make mistakes and in fact routinely lie under oath.
Since you can’t always trust the police, having a dashcam as your electronic witness can really save your bacon. This dashcam can be rotated through 360° to film interactions to any side, and this one can actually upload data directly to the cloud, ensuring that your footage cannot be tampered with.
Here’s a good example of how this can help:
Deciding Whether or Not to Use Dashcam Footage as Evidence
One lesson they don’t necessarily teach in law school is that people are amazingly prone to believing the version of the truth that favors them…even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
For instance, the immediate cause of an accident may well be the actions of another driver, but this argument will be weakened if the same footage shows you speeding or driving recklessly.
Similarly, what you (and other people) are heard saying on camera can also go into evidence and may cast you in a bad light. In a civil suit, you will have to share all the evidence your case relies on with the opposing counsel, and you may be sure that they’ll do their best to poke holes in it.
Cameras like the Rove R2-4K allow you to deactivate audio recording and let you choose to either show your speed on-screen or not. If you live in a so-called “two-party consent” state, you probably want to turn off the sound, while the choice of displaying your speed depends on your driving habits. If you’re not sure whether a particular movie clip will count in your favor, the only thing to do is to ask a lawyer.
Beware! Dashcam Footage May Come Back to Bite You
Do you have to share footage that doesn’t count in your favor?
Under certain circumstances, you do. If the police believe that your dashcam’s SD card contains incriminating evidence, they can seize it without a warrant.
In addition, other parties may serve you with a subpoena: a court order to turn over some recording.
Now, most dash cams record on a loop, meaning that the oldest footage is continually overwritten. However, they will save specific video clips when a collision is detected or you press a special button.
Destroying evidence is a very serious offense. Instead, if you’d prefer some potentially awkward footage not to see the light of day, give a copy to a lawyer. As privileged information, this will then not be shared with third parties unless such an obligation arises.
Uploading Potentially Embarrassing Videos to the Internet
Legally, the owner of a dashcam owns the copyright to all footage taken by it. In addition, since cameras don’t lie and truth is an absolute defense against any charge of defamation, you can’t be sued for libel. Assuming that you record in a public setting (i.e. the people in your video don’t have a legal expectation of privacy), posting a clip on Youtube is totally within the law.
What do you gain by doing this, though?
Before you click the upload button, remember that we all live in glass houses. Logically, if you publicize the mistakes other drivers make on the road, you should do the same with your own.
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The bottom line of owning a dashcam is that it usually avoids those nasty “your word against mine” arguments that often follow a traffic accident (assuming you have one that can show everything of interest clearly).
Given the low cost of a good dashcam, the amount of money and aggravation this can save you really make it a bargain.
Furthermore, there are few legal barriers to using the footage they capture. Installing one has saved many a driver from a sticky situation.