Police are legally bound to remind people of their right to remain silent during interrogations, but they don’t have to warn them to stay quiet in the back seat of a police car.
There, any statement made can and will be used against them – and it is often recorded.
“If someone is talking, running their mouth or blabbering because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, it could be used as evidence, depending on if the district attorney or solicitor’s office would want to hear the video,” said Sgt. Shane McDaniel, of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
In Aiken County, Augusta and Columbia County, law enforcement agencies mount cameras to the dashboard of their patrol cruisers that switch on automatically and record 30 seconds back from the moment officers activate sirens and blue lights.
That includes any conversation happening when an officer isn’t in the vehicle – and the suspects might think nobody’s listening.
“They do not have to be in the vehicle for a confession to be used,” said Capt. Eric Abdullah, the spokesman for the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office. “If a suspect is in the vehicle and confessing to the crime which they are suspected of committing, then it can be used as evidence as long as the confession is not compelled or encouraged or violates the rights of the suspect.”
Such comments can be both disastrous and beneficial to someone hoping to get away with a crime, and prosecutors and defense attorneys usually want to see the tape because car camera confessions are admissible in court on certain grounds.
“Statements made in police cars can be used as evidence,” Augusta District Attorney Ashley Wright said. “The questions are, was the defendant in custody at the time of the statement and if so, was the statement made spontaneously or in response to police questioning?”
If an officer initiates conversation, suspects must be advised of their constitutional rights and “make a knowing and voluntary waiver of them,” Wright said.
“There is no requirement that the statement be recorded, that the waiver of rights be memorialized in writing, or that the statements take place in police station as opposed to a car, a hotel room or any other place,” Wright said. “There is also no requirement that the officers tell the defendant that they are recording him if, in fact, they are.”
The last holds true for a person inside a patrol car who starts openly volunteering information. That’s all on the record and is likely to come up again in cases where defendants are drunk, high or resisting arrest.
“Defendants talk in police cars all the time,” Wright said. “They talk to investigators at the scene while sitting in the cars. Some of them talk all the way to the jail, especially the ones who are drunk or have fought with the officers. It’s not necessarily in response to questioning; some of them just don’t stop talking. They talk to deputies in the booking area.”
McDaniel said most car cameras are equipped with memory cards, which at the end of each day or sometimes each week are given to administrators who upload the data to a server to assist in prosecution.
“It’s all for court purposes,” McDaniel said.
The recordings also can be used for acquittal, though, said Jim Duncan, the founder of the Duncan Law Firm in downtown Augusta’s historic Enterprise Mill.
Last year, one of his clients – despite going the wrong way on Greene Street and registering 0.13 on a breath test for alcohol – was acquitted of driving under the influence because the sheriff’s office had lost the video of his arrest.
“Juries like to see the video,” said Duncan, who prefers to have the footage when representing a case. “It gives an objective, third-party view of an arrest. You are not depending on someone just saying what happened. You can actually see it.”
In having video footage at his fingertips, Duncan said, he can disprove subjective terms such as “stumbled or swayed” and suppress evidence given by a defendant in police cars about their driving record or previous suspended license violations.
“It can help if a person is articulate and logical and if, on the video, (looks) and sounds as if they are not impaired,” Duncan said. “But on the other hand, a defendant may be crying or repeating themselves, which could show they are possibly under the influence.
“It kind of cut(s) both ways.”