The topic of what 3D imagery is admissible in court is especially relevant for law enforcement, insurers, large companies and others that have vested interests in finding out who was liable or responsible for a crime or tortious injury. A court finding of liability or guilt can mean millions of dollars in damage awards.

A finding of liability or guilt also depends on how credible and compelling your evidence is, which is where 3D technology fits into the picture.

Michelle Lorenz, vice president of heavy equipment at Houston International Insurance Group, provided some perspective on what 3D legal documentation is admissible in court in a presentation at SPAR 3D in April.

Putting 3D to Use

Let’s say, for instance, that your company is charged with negligent driving because one of your truck drivers crossed an intersection and caused a collision with an oncoming car whose driver didn't have enough time to brake for the truck and who subsequently crashed into it?

The driver of the car is going to say that the truck driver was negligent because he crossed the intersection without looking at oncoming traffic and that if he had looked, he would have stopped at the intersection, waited for the car to pass and the accident would not have occurred. The truck driver, on the other hand, will look for ways to defend his action, like saying that the car driver was driving so fast (well over the speed limit) that he couldn’t have braked and stopped to avoid the collision.

Who gets the blame and who gets saddled with the damages?

This was the actual case when a truck pulled out in front of a speeding car on California Highway 101 in a 55-mile-per-hour traffic zone.

As part of its research during trial preparation, the trucking company and its insurer decided to use 3D simulation of the accident. A camera was mounted in a car, and the car was driven over the same stretch of Highway 101at the legal traffic speed of 55 miles per hour. During the drive, the camera laser scanned the scene, the car and the truck and created a video recording. This recording, taken while the car was driven at the legal 55-mile-per-hour speed, was then used in simulations that recreated the scene at different car travel speeds. By using “what-if” modeling techniques, the company was able to see what the likelihood of collision would have been had the car been traveling at 55, 65 and finally 80 miles per hour, with overlays for distance and time to impact.

What researchers wanted to know was: would the car have collided with the truck if the car had been traveling at the legal speed limit of 55 miles per hour, or even at 65 miles per hour? If it was confirmed that the car was traveling at 80 miles per hour, and that this extra speed was a substantial factor for the collision that could have been avoided if the car’s driver had been driving at the legal speed limit, was the car driver partly or even wholly responsible for the accident?

For insurers and their corporate clients, 3D forensics simulations like these can speed settlements and keep potential lawsuits out of court because they can reveal who is most likely to prevail in advance of any court legal action.

3D in a Court Setting

Once in court, 3D simulations can also be used to demonstrate a point, although they are inadmissible as evidence. What simulations can do is serve as visual aids that can assist an attorney trying or defending a case, or an expert witness who is testifying in a trial. 

“Ultimately, the goal of any attorney is to get the jury to understand the case facts as they see them, so anything you can do to educate the jury to the forensics is extremely helpful,” says Jason Fries, CEO of 3D-Forensic, which provides 3D forensics video and simulation solutions. “Attorneys tend to use this integrated evidence as a two-stage system. In stage one, they educate the jury on the forensic process performed to create the analysis. In stage two,they use the integrated 3D product to help explain the opinion of other experts involved in the case.”  

Under federal rules of evidence (FRE), expert opinions are admissible as evidence in a court of law if the expert has the requisite qualifications of his profession, if he is familiar with the facts of the case that he is testifying on, if the expert’s testimony will assist the court in determining the truth of the case, and if the expert is using methodologies and sources that are accepted/acknowledged in his profession. A 3D forensics simulation can be used to demonstrate a point that an expert witness is making during testimony, but the simulation itself is not admissible evidence.

“Most often, the 3D video allows a scene to be viewed in 360 degrees so attorneys and experts can show the court the scene and add annotations and graphics to highlight the case,” says Mark Senior, business development manager at Arithmetica, which provides 3D video products. “The video, with still shots, is for illustration and supports the presentation of the case.”

Senior describes one example where geospatial data was presented in a courtroom setting to help resolve a boundary dispute and planning regulation breach.

“One of our clients provided aerial imagery taken at five- or 10-year intervals —typical surveying cycle —to assist an attorney who was trying to demonstrate encroachment into adjoining land, unauthorized land use, buildings, etc.,” Senior says. “Again, this technology tends to be for presentation purposes, so that attorneys and others can tell the story more effectively with visual aids like 3D video, still shots and computer generated models. Once the scene is captured using a laser scanner and the model is created, different scenarios can be factored in with visualizations to illustrate.”

Throughout this process in a courtroom, it is equally important to note that the defendant is not the only one on trial. An expert who is called upon to testify regarding the facts and the logical outcomes of a given situation is also subject to scrutiny — and if he or she uses video technology, the technology itself could be put on trial.

For instance:

  • Was the software that was used for the 3D rendering at its latest release, with proper licensing? Does the software have recent audit results that affirm its fitness for the purpose you are using it?
  • Have you properly maintained your filming and rendering hardware? Are there any lapses in crime or civil tort scene filming created by battery outages or other factors where elements from the scene could have been moved or removed, discrediting the authenticity of your video presentation?
  • How well-concepted is your modeling and methodology for simulations?
  • How skilled are your operators?

“Although you want the person to be familiar with the equipment, certification is unnecessary and has little to no weight in the courtroom,” Fries says. “What is important is that you create a written procedure and then follow it. Make sure you can verify every step you took, as it will all be questioned by opposing counsel. For example, do you want to prove that the time stamp on your camera/camcorder is correct? Take a photo/video of your cell phone, as all cell phones receive their date and time from the same atomic clock that keeps satellites from crashing into earth. In a perfect world, you would be at the scene soon after the event, but often that is simply not possible. Luckily, with cameras in almost every pocket, most scenes are recorded at some level by first responders, and although they often have more important tasks at hand, advancements in 3D technology allow us to extract important data from seemingly poorly shot photos or videos.”

Final Remarks

Law firms, government agencies and companies with both a need to know and a willingness to adopt best practices for 3D imagery, modeling and image rendering will be further helped by new efforts to expand integration of 3D laser scanning, laser based photogrammetry and captured video.

“By integrating all of these technologies, we can often answer questions such as, ‘How tall is the person in the video? How fast is the vehicle traveling?  Where was the location of people when shots were fired?’” Fries says. “Over the next five years, I predict that almost every metropolitan police force will have a team dedicated to capturing important crime scenes in 3D. In the next ten years, scanning a scene in 3D will become as commonplace as photographs are today. The area that is more exciting to me is what level of forensic analysis can be performed using this 3D captured data.”