Volume 40 Number 1

Recording a New Frontier in Evidence-Gathering: Police Body-Worn Cameras and Privacy Doctrines in Washington State

This Note contributes to a growing body of work that weighs the gains that communities stand to make from police body-worn cameras against the tangle of concerns about how cameras may infringe on individual liberties and tread on existing privacy laws. While police departments have quickly implemented cameras over the past few years, laws governing the use of the footage body-worn cameras capture still trail behind. Notably, admissibility rules for footage from an officer’s camera, and evidence obtained with the help of that footage, remain on the horizon.

This Note focuses exclusively on Washington State’s laws. It takes a clinical approach by addressing two areas in which body-worn cameras as a government evidence-gathering tool may clash with privacy laws in Washington: the state’s plain view doctrine and the Washington State Privacy Act.

This Note argues that courts should restrict evidence from body-worn cameras when that evidence defies the boundaries of the plain view doctrine or when it captures a protected conversation under the Privacy Act. Part I discusses the background in which body-worn cameras gained popularity, specifically unpacking their role in the community policing model; it then outlines Washington’s hesitancy to embrace law enforcement’s strides to enhance its evidence-gathering abilities through technology. Part II discusses the problems in determining whether footage obtained in the course of an officer’s duties is admissible under the plain view doctrine. Part III examines the potential for cameras to capture the audio of conversations that the Privacy Act protects. Part IV argues that trial courts should be cognizant of the strong potential for body-worn camera footage and audio to influence juries; it advocates for courts to play a gatekeeping role and suppress evidence derived from body-worn cameras (1) when such evidence fails to meet the requirements of a plain view seizure or (2) when it contains a conversation recorded in violation of the Privacy Act.

:: View PDF