Point of Beginning

Professional Topography: Forensics for surveyors.

July 29, 2003

In many dictionaries, one of the meanings for forensics is “relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems.” For most surveyors, the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems keeps them firmly rooted in matters relating to real property lines. The surveyor’s unique task as an expert of locating property boundaries is without question. As the only group of people recognized as experts in this area, they are placed in a position that involves significant public trust. This trust is also implicit in other types of problems that do not involve real property boundaries or cadastral lines that surveyors often resolve. Forensics is one example where surveyors may be called upon to resolve issues in quite varied situations in which the stakes may be simple or extremely complex. The outcome of a surveyor’s measurements and analysis may result in an impact that is far-reaching. Forensics work can be a wonderful opportunity for surveyors to extend the boundaries of their practice, learn new things, develop new professional relationships and nurture an expertise that may flower into a specialty.

As a practitioner, you may be proud of the involvement of our profession in significant areas outside the practice of boundary location. There are many opportunities to consider that may add interest and breadth to your surveying practice such as the addition of forensics to your practice. Be aware though, that the responsibilities of forensics work are awesome and must be clearly understood. But even considering them will contribute to your professional growth.

I cannot, of course, in the space of this short column cover every imaginable application of surveying art and science to the resolution of legal problems. But here are a few applications where a surveyor’s knowledge can help resolve legal issues outside of land boundaries.

Motor Vehicles and Roads

Accidents between vehicles are often the subject of a surveyor’s investigation. They may involve the accurate measurement of skid marks, locating the accident with respect to the locations of other objects of interest, or even determining such things as the horizontal and vertical alignment of the sun with respect to the driver of a vehicle at the instant of an accident. Close-range photogrammetry or photo interpretation may be required to analyze photographs taken at the scene. Surveyors may also be asked to report on the slopes of the pavement (in the direction of travel and across the lane), the widths of lanes and shoulders, characteristics of horizontal and vertical curves, sight distances for various eye heights, and cross sections and profiles of side slopes. I have even heard of a case (which never got to court) where the surveyor was asked to make conclusions about the time of the accident through the measurement of the location of the objects involved in the accident, including the eyes of the driver of one of the vehicles.

Crime and Non-vehicle Accident Scenes

Surveyors may be asked to determine differences in elevation, and horizontal and slope distances to enable precise trajectories of bullets and other weapons. The trajectories of other objects such as rocks and boulders, and pieces of buildings, may be determined after getting a surveyor’s measurements of the critical parts of a scene. Questions about shadows, determination of witnesses’ and participants’ visual scope of a scene and locations of possible obstructions may be located using surveying measurements, and calculations using locations, heights, sun azimuths, and elevations.

Construction Sites

Determination of volumes is a common task asked of surveyors when disputes and legal problems at construction sites develop. Measurements of a large variety of quantities whether linear, area or volume, are frequently requested of the surveyor to settle disputes or substantiate claims. Sadder and more complex are the measurements regarding accidents. A frequent study requiring surveyors involves clearances between a piece of equipment such as a crane, dump truck, bulldozer or excavator, and a hazard such as an electric transmission line, high-pressure gas pipeline or an object on which a person was standing.

Utmost Integrity

Just as with boundary issues, the surveyor’s responsibility in forensics work is awesome and should not be borne without a sense of context. It should also not be borne with anything but a mantle of independence. That is, that the outcome of a surveyor’s work will be the same when working with the same information, regardless of which side of the issue the client is from. Suggestions on how to resolve an issue may be different depending on the client’s needs. But the conclusions as to the facts must be the same. The surveyor as an expert cannot “bend” the facts to suit one side or another.

The consideration of forensic work for a surveyor is an interesting and exciting one. If acted upon, a surveyor could nurture his or her current expertise into a fulfilling and varied specialty.