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In re Jayshawn B.

New York Family Court, New York County

November 13, 2013

In the Matter of JAYSHAWN B. A Person Alleged to be a Juvenile Delinquent, Respondent.

[975 N.Y.S.2d 864] Jennifer L. Brillante, Esq., for the Respondent.

Natalie Smith, Esq., for the Presentment Agency.


On October 3, 2013 a petition was filed charging the respondent with Petit Larceny (PL § 155.25) and Criminal Possession Of Stolen Property In The Fifth Degree (PL § 165.40). A deposition from Asset Protection Investigator Jude Bright attached to the petition states that the respondent stole items from an American Apparel store on August 23, 2013. The respondent has moved to prevent Investigator Bright from testifying about the alleged larceny, as a video-surveillance tape of the incident has been destroyed. For the reasons that follow I find that the motion must be denied.


The following information has been gleaned from the court file and memoranda of law submitted by respondent and Presentment Agency.

On August 23, 2013 Investigator Bright, an employee of American Apparel, was in his store's camera surveillance room. While watching a live feed from the surveillance camera " of what is happening in the store at the time," (Deposition, October 1, 2013) Investigator Bright allegedly saw the respondent shoplift a watch. The case was referred to the Presentment Agency from Probation on September 30, 2013. On October 1,2013 an attorney from the Presentment Agency met with Investigator Bright, who told the attorney that all American Apparel surveillance video tapes are stored in a central location in Los Angeles, California and that the tape from August 23, 2013 might have been destroyed.

On October 4, 2013 the Presentment Agency sent an e-mail to Investigator Bright, in which they asked about the tape's status. On October 9, 2013 Investigator Bright told the Presentment Agency that the August 23, 2013 videotape was being sent to him from American Apparel's central storage facility in Los Angeles, via Federal Express. On October 15, 2013 Investigator Bright told the Presentment Agency that there had been a mis-communication between the storage facility and him and that the surveillance tape had been destroyed. The Presentment Agency subsequently spoke to a representative of American Apparel, who said that surveillance tapes are kept for 39 days, before they are destroyed. According to the representative from American Apparel the [975 N.Y.S.2d 865] August 23, 2013 tape involving the respondent had been destroyed, because the store believed that the incident was being resolved through the Department of Probation and that court action would not be required.


The oft-mentioned and much misunderstood' best evidence rule simply requires the production of an original writing where its contents are in dispute and sought to be proven...Under a long-recognized exception to the best evidence rule, secondary evidence of the contents of an unproduced original may be admitted upon threshold factual findings by the trial court that the proponent of the substitute has sufficiently explained the unavailability of the primary evidence...the proponent of such derivative proof has the heavy burden of establishing, preliminarily to the court's satisfaction, that it is a reliable and accurate portrayal of the original. Schozer v. Penn Life Insurance Co. of New York, 84 N.Y.2d 639, 643-644,645, 620 N.Y.S.2d 797, 644 N.E.2d 1353 (citations omitted).

Surveillance videotapes fall under the " best evidence" rule ( see People v. Cyrus, 48 A.D.3d 150, 848 N.Y.S.2d 67 [1st Dept.] ).

In his memorandum of law the respondent argues that testimony by Investigator Bright concerning the content of the videotape would violate the best evidence rule, both because the Presentment Agency has failed to adequately explain the unavailability of the videotape and because the investigator could not give a reliable and accurate portrayal of the contents of the tape. Respondent also argues that the destruction of the videotape violates Brady and Rosario requirements for the production of evidence and asks that the court apply sanctions for the violation.

In their memorandum of law the Presentment Agency argues that the best evidence rule is inapplicable to the facts at bar, because Investigator Bright would be testifying about what he observed while watching the alleged incident in real time through a live video feed. They also argue that there is no Brady or Rosario violation, since law enforcement never had possession or control over the videotape.

Turning to my analysis this court's research has found no New York cases that have ruled on whether the best evidence rule applies to the testimony of observations made through live video feeds. But courts in foreign jurisdictions have ruled on the issue.

In People v. Tharpe-Williams, 286 Ill.App.3d 605, 221 Ill.Dec. 914, 676 N.E.2d 717 the Appellate Court of Illinois upheld a shoplifting conviction that was based on the testimony of two Wal-Mart store loss prevention agents, who watched the thefts in a contemporaneous telecast on the video monitor in their security office. The video tapes of the incident were never submitted into evidence at trial.

The defendant argued that the testimony violated the best evidence rule, but the Appellate Court disagreed as the loss prevention agents " ... sought to testify not to the contents of the videotape, but to an incident they observed on the video monitor." ( Tharpe-Williams at 610, 221 Ill.Dec. 914, 676 N.E.2d 717). The Justices reasoned that in testifying to what they saw on the video monitor the loss prevention agents were testifying to their personal observations. The Court likened the testimony of the witnesses to the testimony of someone recounting what they had observed 100 yards away through a telescope. " As long as the telescope was functioning properly, we see no reason why they would not be able to testify as to what they observed. Similarly, as long as the [975 N.Y.S.2d 866] video system was functioning properly, [the loss prevention agents] could testify as to what they observed on the video monitor." Tharpe-Williams at 611, 221 Ill.Dec. 914, 676 N.E.2d 717.

In U.S. v. Perez, 36 M.J. 583 [U.S. Air Force Ct. of Military Review] the Court upheld a trial court verdict of thefts on an Air Force base, where special investigation officers testified to what they observed while monitoring a video surveillance system. In ruling that allowing the testimony did not violate the best evidence rule the court reasoned:

It seems fairly clear that if there were no recordings made, these witnesses could testify about what they saw on a video monitor, just as if they were watching through binoculars, or monitoring an X-ray machine for screening mail or luggage. The use of an electronic or mechanical aid does not make one any less an eyewitness. The existence of videotape recordings of what the witness saw is of significant value to the court in verifying the accuracy of the witness' perceptions and memories, but we are unaware of any rule of evidence that would exclude the witness' eyewitness testimony. U.S. v. Perez at 585.

Courts in Indiana and Massachusetts have also allowed witnesses to testify about events they saw through live video camera feeds, even though the video tapes were not introduced into evidence. In Collins v. Indiana, 950 N.E.2d 374 [Ct. of App., Ind.], a shoplifting case, the court reasoned that the loss prevention manager who testified " ... was merely recounting what she observed using the cameras and that, for the purposes of admissibility this is no different then if [the witness] had been on the floor of the store observing [defendant's] activity." And in Commonwealth v. Capeles, 79 Mass.App.Ct. 1129, 950 N.E.2d 84 the Appeals Court of Massachusetts held that testimony from police officers about setting up a surveillance camera and the nature of the equipment was sufficient to lay a foundation for the officers to testify about an assault witnessed on a live video feed, as the observations of the police were analogous to observations seen through binoculars [1].

The reasoning of these foreign courts is persuasive. Just as a witness can testify to what they observed while looking through binoculars ( see People v. Garcia, 207 A.D.2d 664, 616 N.Y.S.2d 37 [1st Dept.] [testimony of police observation of drug sale seen through binoculars is admissible into evidence] ), a store employee should be permitted to testify about what he or she has witnessed through a live video feed, whether or not a video tape of the incident is introduced into evidence. Accordingly, I find no best evidence violation in the case at bar and will permit Investigator Bright to testify concerning his observations as seen on American Apparel's live video feed, provided it can be established that the video equipment was working properly and that the cameras conveyed a contemporaneous and true-to-life view of events in the store.

As for the respondent's claim of Rosario and Brady violations the case law provided by the Presentment Agency sufficiently rebuts such claims, as law enforcement never possessed the destroyed videotapes and the tapes were not exculpatory ( see, People v. Walloe, 88 A.D.3d 544, 931 N.Y.S.2d 48 [1st Dept.]; People v. Brock, 246 A.D.2d 406, 667 N.Y.S.2d 730 [1st Dept.] ).

For all the reasons herein the respondent's motion, based on the best evidence [975 N.Y.S.2d 867] rule, to exclude the testimony of Investigator Bright concerning what he saw on American Apparel's video monitors is denied [2]. Also denied is respondent's request for a sanction, based upon Brady and Rosario violations.

This constitutes the order of the Court.

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