Video surveillance systems are a critical element for business and residential customers. They secure specific areas and help deter crime simply by their presence. Surveillance systems commonly record crimes such as fighting, shooting, fire, theft, and vandalism. Forensic video recovery services in commercial litigation casework can assist with the acquisition of video evidence in order to preserve the digital integrity of the evidence and provide playable versions to the court for discovery purposes, in many cases, in large sums of data.
Casinos, County Jails, or consumers’ homes rely upon active surveillance. VMS (video management system) or a mobile phone app allows for review of active surveillance. Businesses like convenience stores, vehicle repair shops, or law firms rely upon passive surveillance methodology. A recorded and saved video allows for evaluation or analysis as needed. An appropriately trained and experienced individual should be handling digital evidence. Digital evidence, by nature, is fragile. If not handled by following best practices, the video can lose its digital integrity, reduce the accuracy of the chain of custody, introduce artifacts, and reduce the overall quality. We have investigated cases where a client mishandled the evidence before our involvement. This caused them to pay out higher settlements.
So why hire a professional like a video forensic expert to assist with collecting surveillance video recordings in civil litigation? The purpose of this post is to inform attorneys, investigators, and litigators about the benefits of engaging a video forensic expert to recover video recordings after an incident.
Forensic Video Recovery Investigation
As a Forensic Video Analyst, I recently aided a client-attorney representing the defense in a commercial litigation case, specifically real estate development litigation. Our client was accused of blocking an easement area of the shared property or violating an easement agreement. This case involved collecting and reviewing hundreds of hours of surveillance video recordings.
The client’s property has a 32-channel HIK-Vision NVR system which housed critical recorded video evidence relative to the case. The client-attorney requested that our team assist with culling through 8 weeks of high-quality 4k video evidence from a single camera. The still frame extraction and export process occurred whenever our team noticed an instance of easement obstruction. The compiling of these still video frames created an exhibit. They represent instances of importance that the Judge and Jury would need to review about the breach of the easement contract.
Preserving the integrity of the video recording as evidence prompts a consideration for the Best Practices for Data Acquisition from Digital Video Recorders from SWGDE. Best practices recommend removing the original evidence hard drive and imaging (cloning). This is crucial for investigations requiring the contents of an entire drive. Thus, the team at Primeau Forensics performed the extraction, imaging, and review of the 10 TB of video recording on the HIK-Vision hard drive. The defense agreed that the preservation of the integrity of the evidence was critical.
The HIK Vision NVR system had 32 channels of cameras installed at the location. This is also the collection location of the evidence video recordings. Although these systems record reliable, high-quality video evidence, they do not always capture original video and may require forensic video authentication testing.
Video Analysis Process
Our team began the investigation by proposing an investigation plan to the defense team. To meet the trial deadline, the investigation plan of reviewing video evidence is crucial. This particular case had a 10-day turnaround. Using industry-standard tools such as DVR Examiner and Amped Five, our team of 4 technicians reviewed the video recordings and extracted hundreds of still image exhibits for trial use.
DVR Examiner is the most effective tool for extraction from the proprietary NVR video system. Using a write blocker enabled our team to forensically clone and connect the 10 TB drive to DVR Examiner. Multiple working drives allowed for the storage of the total export. One working drive for our team, another for the Plaintiff, and the third for the defense (attorney-client). Our goal was to preserve all exhibits’ recording authenticity and digital integrity.
Our team created a copy of the extracted video evidence on our forensic server. Once complete, we began assessing the video analysis project. Amped Five was critical and gave our team the ability to watch the video recordings efficiently and effectively. Features like stepping through 30-second periods, bookmarking the video frames of interest, and bulk exporting these frames while retaining the frame number for reference to the video evidence were most important to the case. Amped Five also retained the integrity of the video recordings in preparation for any authenticity challenges from Plaintiff.
Even the most experienced and talented attorney is only as successful when preparing for a trial as their litigation team. While at trial, I was able to provide further information on newly discovered evidence that Plaintiff brought in while putting on their case. We also assisted with providing digital and printed binders full of all image exhibits regarding the dispute.
I prepared a mobile NVR system, which stored the eight weeks of video evidence, which is sometimes necessary to review video recordings in a multicamera view within their native container, for months of data at a time. This was necessary also to ensure that the judge and jury understood the timecode issue. This evidence played the video with an accurate timecode through the NVR system. The video evidence was initially recorded with a timecode jumping issue. This assistance before testimony was critical in preparing to answer questions on the stand as a fact witness.
I traveled out of state for an appearance at trial as a fact witness. Some might ask, “why is a video expert being admitted as a fact witness?”. The short of the long is that the judge assigned to the preliminary hearings needed to fully understand how this investigative process would require an expert to complete. He believed the video playback and identification did not require an expert. However, in the forensic community, a qualified technician or analyst would be responsible for acquiring, handling, and extracting video evidence for courtroom use. Despite not being admitted as an expert, the forensic video analysis commercial litigation strategy was admitted nonetheless.
The direct examination began with explaining to the court precisely what our team did to generate the image and video exhibits. These exhibits were extracted based on a conservative review of the evidence. This was recommended to ensure all instances, good, bad, and ugly to the case, were communicated correctly to the court—this conservative approach to forensic video analysis as an expert witness.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a million.” Plaintiff began cross-examination by showing me images that witnesses captured in person using mobile devices. However, surveillance videos that the defense furnished to the court displayed more information from a more accurate camera perspective because the video, in this case, was of higher probative value.
This cross-examination was complex for a fact witness, primarily experienced in testifying as an expert. He had to think on his feet and answer questions about the video recordings created over eight weeks. The witnesses’ ability to maintain a calm demeanor and answer complicated questions without the support of forensic methodology can be frustrating. I kept calm and responded to questions to ensure the jury understood the responses.
Although I couldn’t testify as an expert witness, I testified as a fact witness. Plaintiff challenged the integrity of the eight weeks of video as inadmissible. They argued that the discovery deadline date had passed. As a result, the jury should not review the submitted evidence. However, had the Primeau Forensics team not been involved in reviewing eight weeks’ worth of video evidence, the Plaintiff’s arguments may have been weighed more heavily by the jury.
The civil defense won the case. The trial judge ruled that the videos were relevant and that the images provided factual information. The judge found that my testimony would also be necessary to understand accurately how this investigation was completed.