Legal Issues When Using a Dash Cam

You presumably have bought (or will buy) a dash cam in the hope and expectation that it will be a tool to help you reduce your legal liability in the case of an accident or other problematic experience with your vehicle.

Be careful that the dash cam does not switch from helping you to avoid liability and instead creates new liability for possibly new offenses instead!  That would be a very unwelcome and unexpected consequence of your purchase.

Read more in this article.

Read more in our series on Dash Cams

Future articles to follow shortly :

  • Legal Issues
  • Entry and mid level dash cams reviewed
  • High end dash cam review

Usual disclaimer.  We are not attorneys, and they are the ultimate in “closed shop” groups.  Only attorneys can give (well, better to say, sell) legal advice.  So, you know how it goes, this is not legal advice and you shouldn’t rely on it; speak to a highly trained legal professional for proper legal advice.

Will your dash cam help you when something goes wrong? Hopefully/usually, yes, but keep in mind its “dark side”.

The Law About Mounting Devices on Your Windshield

Many states have laws restricting or even prohibiting affixing devices on windshields.  If you have the bad fortune to live in such a state, you may need to mount your dash cam to the dashboard or the head liner in some form or another.

These laws vary in terms.  For example, some states place a maximum size on devices that can be mounted on windshields, with some sources suggesting these limits to be 7 sq inches on the passenger side and 5 sq inches on the driver’s side; but other sources simply say “7 inches” and “5 inches”.  There’s a big difference between inches and square inches.  You should check your state requirements.

Other states (such as our own state of Washington) say something like

No person shall drive any motor vehicle with any sign, poster, or other nontransparent material upon the front windshield, side wings, or side or rear windows of such vehicle which obstructs the driver’s clear view of the highway or any intersecting highway.

That’s a clear statement – or is it?  The actual prohibition isn’t on placing things on your windshield, but on placing things on your windshield that obstruct your clear view of the highway and intersecting highways.  So it seems that as long as you have something placed reasonably above eye level on the windshield, you’re not obstructing your view of the highway.

This article includes helpful links to the relevant legislation in most states.

Another Legal Matter – Self Incrimination

What happens if you are actually at fault in a collision, and your dash cam has recorded incontrovertible evidence of your error?  It is certainly true that you’d be ill advised to volunteer to the other driver and the police that you have proof that it was your fault, and indeed your insurance policy might oblige you not to make such voluntary statements at the scene.

Indeed, I’ll go further than that.  Interpreting camera footage is a very complicated subject, one that often comes up in the context of police body cameras.  The thing is, what you see through the camera, when calmly playing it back some time after the fact, in a comfortable calm office, might be very different to what the police officer (or car driver) saw, themselves, at the time the incident was playing out.

For one thing, remember that the dash cam has a wider field of view than you do, so it is seeing things you would not reasonably be expected to see or respond/react to.  Indeed, studies generally suggest that, at 60 mph, your field of view has narrowed to about 1/5th what it is when standing still.

The dash cam might have better night vision.  Maybe your eyes were briefly dazzled by an oncoming car with its lights on full/high beam.  It certainly has better peripheral vision.

The complicated point to appreciate here is that sometimes a dash cam playback, when scrutinized frame by frame, might show oversights and errors on your part.  Maybe those failings are unrelated to the actual accident, but they don’t help you make your case as being blameless if the dash cam shows you did something less than excellent ten seconds (or even ten minutes) prior.  You might think the dash cam footage will exonerate you, and will prove you’re not to blame, but instead, it might complicate matters and rather than have you deemed 100% not at fault, end up with you being judged to be in some degree also at fault.  The chance to review such footage invites hypocritical “woulda/shoulda/coulda” analysis by people eager to shift the blame and confuse rather than clarify the issue.

So, here’s the thing.  In almost all circumstances of any accident, especially if people are injured, it is not always prudent to volunteer to the police or to anyone at all that you have a dash cam, and that it has recorded the entire incident.  Instead, quietly review the footage yourself, on a high quality monitor (not the tiny low-resolution screen on the dash cam), the next day, when you have calmed down and can view the incident more dispassionately, and see what you think.

Even better would be to have a traffic attorney view the footage and give his opinion.

Now for the more difficult situation.  What do you do if you know the camera has embarrassing evidence that will not be helpful?  Can the police demand you hand it over to them?  This is a slightly complicated situation, and while you can cite the Fifth Amendment, Self-Incrimination, Fourth Amendment and Unlawful Search and Seizure, and as many other legal principles as you like, the short answer is that if a policeman asks you for your dash cam or its memory card, you must give it to him.  Just like the First Amendment which seems to give you an absolute right to free speech is getting increasingly curtailed, and we all know that the unconditional rights in the Second Amendment are also very curtailed, so too are there “corner cases” and “fine print” that restrict the other rights that we believe we have.  Here’s a quick “taste” of how the deck is stacked against you when it comes to your rights in your vehicle.

But please also understand the difference between voluntarily “cooperating” and giving the dash cam recording, and involuntarily surrendering it.  If you voluntarily give it to the policeman, then it is much harder to try and exclude its evidence subsequently.  It is better to say “I do not consent to your request for my dash cam, and I object to you taking it.  But I will cooperate with you and will not interfere with you taking it now, and we can resolve the matter in court, but please note this is an involuntary seizure against my wishes.”  Tell that to every policeman present.

Additionally, please understand that even if you are spared the obligation to incriminate yourself, that does not extend to devices you own.  Simple example – if the right extended to devices, people with illegal images on their computers would never be at risk of prosecution, because they’d just say “I refuse to let you search my computer because it might incriminate me”.

If you deliberately delete/destroy evidence, you are committing additional crimes (if a criminal matter) or civil wrongs (if a civil matter) and possibly even both (if both civil and criminal actions flow from the collision).

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A word of caution.  Whatever you do, don’t delete the embarrassing scenes and then hand the card to the police or other investigating authorities (insurance company, other party’s attorney, etc).  Because anyone with a measure of skill will be able to determine that you deleted scenes, and also recover the deleted scenes off the card, and that will definitely harm your situation much more than leaving the scenes intact.


Also In This Series

Phew.  This is the seventh and final part of the “buyer’s guide”.  Still to come are reviews of specific dash cam models at all price levels.

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