Where the video of the stop clearly contradicts the officer’s testimony on the basis for the stop, the appellate court can reject the trial court’s credibility finding. Here, it was whether defendant’s license plate light worked. The video showed it was working. State v. Boger, 2021 ND 152, 2021 N.D. LEXIS 157 (Aug. 19, 2021) (h/t reader):
[¶16] The district court further found “[the officer] credibly maintained that he believed the rear license plate was not illuminated, and any apparent illumination of the rear lights he later observed when his vehicle was behind the Defendant’s stopped vehicle was a result of reflection from [the officer’s] own headlights after he initiated the traffic stop.” The officer’s testimony is inconsistent with the body camera video. The still images from the video clearly show the officer’s testimony is contrary to the video evidence. The images show a license plate light bright enough to reflect off the dark surface below the light.
[¶17] We are not the first appellate court to consider video evidence that contradicts the testimony of an officer under a deferential standard of review for findings of fact. The Indiana Supreme Court has qualified its “almost total deference” in such situations: “where the video evidence indisputably contradicts the trial court’s findings, relying on such evidence and reversing the trial court’s findings do not constitute reweighing.” Love v. State, 73 N.E.3d 693, 699 (Ind. 2017). The court explained further: “To be clear, in order that the video evidence indisputably contradict the trial court’s findings, it must be such that no reasonable person could view the video and conclude otherwise.” Id. To determine whether different interpretations of a video may be reasonable and thus whether deference remains appropriate, the appellate court must consider the video quality, the lighting and angle, and whether the video is a complete depiction of the events at issue. Id.; see also Commonwealth v. Griffin, 2015 PA Super 117, 116 A.3d 1139, 1144 (reversing denial of motion to suppress where a dash cam video “clearly rebuts” the officer’s testimony, resulting in a conclusion that the trial court’s factual findings were not supported by the record); Middleburg Hts. v. Wojciechowski, 2015-Ohio-3879, ¶¶ 17-19 (Ct. App.) (reversing denial of motion to suppress where video contradicted the officer’s testimony regarding the basis for the traffic stop and showed trial court’s findings were against manifest weight of the evidence). Indeed, we have previously suggested the same result if video evidence contradicts officer testimony on the critical facts. Crawford v. Director, N.D. Dep’t of Transp., 2017 ND 103, ¶ 7, 893 N.W.2d 770 (“Our review of the video of the traffic stop does not contradict the arresting officer’s testimony, and we do not reweigh that evidence or reassess the arresting officer’s credibility.”).
[¶18] The video evidence in this case clearly rebuts the officer’s testimony. We agree with the Indiana Supreme Court that in situations “where the video evidence indisputably contradicts the trial court’s findings, relying on such evidence and reversing the trial court’s findings do not constitute reweighing.” Love, 73 N.E.3d at 699. We conclude the court’s finding that the license plate was not illuminated is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.
[¶19] The district court’s determination that the officer had reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop Boger’s vehicle was premised on two findings: the officer’s testimony supported a finding the license plate was not legible and the license plate was not illuminated. There is insufficient evidence in the record to support a finding the officer stopped Boger’s vehicle for any reason other than the rear license plate was not illuminated, and no evidence the stop was initiated based on the lack of license plate legibility. The court’s finding the rear license plate was not illuminated is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. We reverse the court’s decision denying the defendant’s motion to suppress based on a finding the officer had a reasonable and articulable suspicion the rear license plate was not properly illuminated.
techdirt: North Dakota Supreme Court: An Officer’s Camera Is More Trustworthy Than His BS Testimony by Tim Cushing