Police Enlist Video Cameras In War On Drunken Drivers

June 23, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

The latest weapons in the fight against drunken driving will be video cameras mounted in police cruisers, as county police hope to use videotaped evidence to strengthen their cases against intoxicated drivers.

Aetna Life and Casualty, with help from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, has donated 29 video cameras to police departments throughout the state, with four of the cameras going to Howard County police.

"Our goal in MADD is to get drunk drivers off the road, and this is one of the best tools to discourage drinking and driving," said George Layman, a spokesman for the Howard County chapter of MADD. "Thiswill give police another instrument to aid them in prosecution."

The cameras will be mounted inside patrol cars and will be turned on whenever an officer spots a car weaving in traffic, typically the first sign that a driver has been drinking.

During the subsequent traffic stop, the officer will conduct standard sobriety tests in view of the mounted video camera and, ifthe driver fails, the tape will provide hard evidence in court, say police and MADD officials.

Aetna,which donated the cameras through area MADD chapters, also has givencameras to state police and departments in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick and Washington counties. Baltimore City police also will bereceiving donated cameras.

Since July 1989, Aetna has donated more than 1,000 video cameras at an estimated cost of $1,300 apiece to 152 law enforcement agencies nationwide, said Robert D. Caruthers, a spokesman for Aetna's headquarters in Hartford, Conn.

"These cameras enable an officer to really show what he observes," Caruthers said."The idea is that the officer turns the camera on when he has probable cause, and he has a vivid, graphic picture of what takes place on the traffic stop."

Caruthers said Aetna, which loses about $200 million a year as a result of drunken-driving accidents, has documentedthat most drunken drivers who are videotaped decide against going totrial.

"The evidence against them is so clear that they opt not to waste the court's time, which in turn saves everyone a lot of expense," Caruthers said.

But while the idea to use video cameras in arrests is not new -- police in several states throughout the country routinely use cameras during arrests -- the concept is a new one to Maryland agencies.

"I'm not sure whether judges here will allow the entire tape," Layman said. "Due to the wire-tap law, it's highly unlikely that the sound portion of the tape could be used."

Under the wire-tap law, sound-recorded evidence is not admissible in court unless it is pre-approved by a judge.

Sgt. Gary L. Gardner, a Howard County police spokesman, said police are not squeamish about using thecameras and said he didn't expect any problems with taped evidence in the courtroom.

"We've already begun using them," he said. "There's no law about using a video camera at a crime scene. We've all seenit with Rodney King (a motorist whose brutal beating by police officers in Los Angeles was videotaped by a bystander). What's the difference if the videotaping is done by a citizen or a police officer? There is none."

Gardner said the camera may also be used during periodic drunken driving roadblocks, one of which will be conducted next weekend.

Aetna and MADD officials will donate the cameras to most ofthe police agencies at a kick-off news conference on Friday, which will include a demonstration of how the cameras have been used by other police departments around the country.

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