Police Body Cams and the Early Adopter Tax

Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, wants to spend $11,000,000 to outfit APD officers with body cameras by 2016.  Meanwhile, the police believe they can start by 2017 with only $2,000,000 and then spend and additional $5,000,000 in maintenance over the next 5 years.

Why would it be so much more expensive to get the cameras one year early?  Currently, the price is high because supply can’t keep up with demand.  In a few years these, as production capabilities expand, these camera will be had at commodity prices.  If APD does it Mayor Adler’s way then the city will pay the “Early Adopter Tax” for new technology.  Body Cam prices are so high that the Dallas Police Chief joked about quitting and becoming a Body Cam salesman to make more money.

Whenever the cameras are deployed, I believe the videos they provide will make it easier to defend people accused of domestic violence.  Many law enforcement officers just can’t resist the urge to write reports that twist and/or embellish the truth.  I understand that police officers feel the need to justify a warrantless arrest, but do they really need to pretend that one person is evil incarnate and the other is an innocent flower?  The truth usually helps the defense in assault cases.

Upcoming Criminal Justice Issues in the SCOTUS

The following cases on the January argument calendar for the Supreme Court of the United States are of interest to criminal law practitioners.

Mon., Jan. 11:

Briscoe v. Virginia (07-11191) — Scope of crime lab analysts’ role in a criminal trial; sequel to Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, on Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause rights. The Melendez-Diaz case, which was decided earlier this year, requires the prosecution, when it presents a lab report as evidence in a criminal trial, to make the analyst who prepared it available for cross-examination by defense counsel. Sadly, the 5-4 decision may already be in jeopardy. More….

Tue., Jan. 12:

U.S. v. Comstock (08-1224) — Constitutionality of court-ordered civil commitment for federal convicts who are at the end of their sentences and people who have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial when deemed to be “sexually dangerous.”

1/29/10 Revision. Changed category from “Cases of Note” to “Case Law.”

DNA Contamination

An interesting story from Science and Stuff:



DNA traces of an unknown eastern-European woman had been found at almost 17 crime scenes, including two murders (including a 22 year old police officer) but also car jackings, unprofessional break-ins and on a bullet fired in a marital dispute. The crimes where spread around a large area including south-west Germany, France and Switzerland.


It now turns out that the several-hundred-men task force might have really been chasing a phantom. Alarmed by the apparent randomness of the crimes, involving both highly professional work and seemingly amateur break-ins, they started checking for contaminations in the labwork. The likeliest suspect now are the cotton swabs used to collect evidence at the crime scene. All the swabs used in the forensics works were sourced from the same supplier, a company in northern Germany that employs several eastern-European women that would fit the profile. Even more inciminating, the state of Bavaria lies right in the center of the crimes’ locations, without ever finding matching DNA in crimes on its territory. Guess what: they get their cotton swabs from a different supplier.


While the suspicion had already been growing in the last few months, the smoking gun apparently was a case where they tried to match a burned (male) corpse to DNA collected from fingerprint samples an asylum-seeker had given a few months earlier. The first test showed a match between those fingerprints and the Phantom’s DNA while a second test did not.


By the way: contaminated cotton swabs aren”t as trivial to avoid as one might think. It’s relatively easy to sterilize cotton to prevent infections. Forensics however require a complete destruction or removal of any DNA contamination, which is apparently a lot harder.