MVARS are dashboard-mounted cameras in some law enforcement vehicles that record arrests. The evidence from an MVARS can both help and hurt your DUI case.
In recent years there has been public pressure on law enforcement to have more accountability and more transparency in arrests. One of the ways law enforcement does this is by using dashboard-mounted cameras (“dash cams”) to record arrests. In California, these dash cams are formally known as Mobile Video/Audio Recording Systems (MVARS).
How do MVARS work?
MVARS are mounted on the dashboard of squad cars. They are not handheld devices. Instead:
- The MVARS is always on
- It faces forward at all times
These steps are designed to make MVARS footage consistent from one arrest to another. They are also meant to eliminate officer mistakes (forgetting to turn the camera on, not pointing it at the arrest the whole time, etc.) and reduce the chance of misuse.
Because of this setup, if a dash cam is present, your DUI traffic stop and arrest will be recorded if:
- The officer stops their car behind yours
- There is adequate lighting (typically, officers shine a light on traffic stops at night)
- The traffic stop and arrest are conducted on the roadside in front of the squad car
The only exception is if there is some technical failure with the camera, such as the battery running out—or if the squad car in your arrest is not equipped with a dash cam.
How many squad cars have dash cams?
It depends on the agency. Using dash cams is not required by law, and some police departments favor them while others do not. Many local police forces do not use them simply because of the cost.
The California Highway Patrol (CHP), however, makes wide use of MVARS. If the agency that arrested you was the CHP, it is likely there is footage of your DUI arrest.
How does MVARS footage affect my DUI case?
Video footage of your arrest can either help or hurt your case. For example, if the video shows that you are swaying, stumbling, acting belligerent, or otherwise seem intoxicated, it can give a jury a very bad impression of you—regardless of whether you were legally impaired or not. In these situations, the footage only hurts your case.
But there are many times when MVARS footage helps your case:
- What happened in the video does not match what officers say happened in the report
- The video captured your field sobriety tests , and you do not look as drunk in the video as officers claimed you were
- The video captures any irregularity in procedure or violation of your rights
If the video does capture a violation of rights, this single piece of evidence could be enough to get your entire case thrown out.
How do I get a copy of the MVAR video? Can I block it from being used in court?
Under California law, you have a legal right to see the footage from your arrest and you can use it as evidence in the case against you. Your lawyer can request this footage from the CHP or the agency that arrested you. Generally, these agencies will turn over the video with no hesitation; they will give you a complete copy of the footage and keep the original. (If they resist for any reason you can file a Public Records Act request, but this is rare.) A good DUI lawyer will always check to see if there is dash cam footage in your DUI case. You can then review it to look for violations, inconsistencies or weaknesses in the case against you.
The prosecutor will also get a copy of the footage. If there is anything in the footage that makes you look bad, you should expect that they will use it in court—and that they will also use it as leverage in any discussions about a potential plea bargain for your DUI. In general, it is unlikely that you can suppress dash cam footage or prevent it from being used in court. Even if police violated your rights and other evidence from the arrest gets suppressed, the video footage will still be allowed in court.
The complicated rules around dash cam evidence—and its potential to help you win your case—are one of the reasons why it’s best to have professional legal representation.
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