A Miami Beach police officer worried about his words being twisted at trial, recently used his newly outfitted “body camera” to record a hallway interview by a defense attorney — without telling her first, reported the Miami Herald.
The resulting objection from the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, it is safe to say, was strenuous.
The episode and backlash have spurred Miami Beach police to ban officers from using the new technology at such so-called “hallway depositions” — and underscored the difficult balance of providing the public a transparent view of how law enforcement operates while protecting privacy rights.
“These are issues we are all struggling over as we are learning this technology,” said Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates.
The incident sparked outrage from the Public Defender’s office, which called the recording “a violation of Florida law” and re-ignited long-running complaints that defense attorneys in minor cases are generally not allowed formal interviews with witnesses before trial.
“My biggest issue is that there are no depositions in misdemeanor court. For too long, we have treated misdemeanors as if they are not serious,” said Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez. “They can seriously impact people’s abilities to get jobs. They can get their driver licenses suspended.”
Body-cam programs for police have increased along with national scrutiny of law enforcement tactics amid a series of high-profile deadly encounters between officers and citizens. Lethal police shootings from Missouri to New York to Florida have spurred calls for outfitting officers with the small digital cameras, mounted next to an officer’s badge.
“One officer did it for a narrow reason in that he was worried whatever he said was going to be misrepresented by the public defender in the courtroom,” Oates said.
The police union said there is no expectation of privacy in in the courtroom hallway.
“It’s a public area,” said Kevin Millan, the fraternal order’s vice president. “Any member of the public, including the media, can tape in that area.”
Ultimately, the case was dismissed. Although the department said the officer did nothing wrong, after meeting with prosecutors, the department has ordered officers to leave the cameras off in the hallways. Officers can now ask that prosecutors stand in on misdemeanor “hallway depositions.”
“For these misdemeanor cases, both the State Attorney’s Office and the Department want to avoid a continuance and avoid formal depositions,” Oates wrote in an email on March 15. “This is because any postponement of a misdemeanor trial almost always favors the defendant and increases the likelihood that the case will be dismissed.”
The decision was met with dismay from the union, which while not in favor of body cameras in general, thinks they should be allowed so that officers can “protect their rights.”
The new policy has done little to mollify Martinez, the public defender who now plans to file a public-records request to determine exactly how many times Miami Beach police officers have recorded his lawyers in court. He believes that officers will now stop consenting to the informal interviews, leaving defense lawyers less prepared to defend the accused.
“You have a constitutional issue here. You cannot prepare to go trial,” Martinez said. “You cannot adequately advise your client. It’s outrageous.”
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