Month: April 2018

Criminal JusticeCriminal LawExpert Witnesslegaltech

Fingerprints Lifted from Social Media Photo: Expert Evidence and Impact on Criminal Defense

Friday morning, I read a really interesting article from the FindLaw Technologist blog (their legal technology blog). The headline grabbed my attention because it was about drug dealers’ fingerprints being lifted from a photo on social media application, WhatsApp. This was news to me. I had no idea law enforcement could obtain digital fingerprints or that they could be used for an arrest. In hindsight, it seems perfectly reasonable that fingerprints could be obtained this way because the cameras in our cell phones are so advanced.

Probably, like many laypeople, I thought law enforcement had to access latent fingerprints left on a physical object (doorknob, weapon, cell phone, etc.). Based on my years of watching police procedural television shows and documentaries, I assumed the fingerprints had to be dusted by an evidence technician, input to a database, and then compared to other prints in the database. Today, however, I discovered that’s not the only way to do it.

As the Findlaw article explained, “Law enforcement arrested members of a drug ring using fingerprints on a cell phone photograph. Investigators didn’t even need the suspects’ cell phone because the photo was posted on the messaging application, WhatsApp.” The photo showed a male hand holding a bag of drugs. The agency’s forensics team uploaded the photo to a fingerprint data base and they found a match. The article specifically states the officers “acting on other information” located and arrested the man.

My assumption was the officers needed additional evidence in order to make an arrest.  Authorities can likely use the image as an investigative lead and then they have to go find additional evidence to establish probable cause for an arrest.

Alas, these were only my assumptions. It’s been a long time since I spent any time on criminal procedure. As such, I have asked for some input from Walter M. Reaves, Esq. Walter is a friend and colleague I’ve met through the LegalMinds Mastermind Group. He is a criminal defense attorney located in Waco, Texas. To find more about his practice, visit waco-criminal-attorney.com.

Input from Criminal Defense Attorney Walter Reaves:

Walter jumped on the questions I asked and elaborated on the entire concept of using digital and social media photos. Here is what he said:

“Given the way cell phones have taken control of all our lives, it’s not surprising that they are being used as evidence in criminal cases. For several years, the police have been obtaining cell tower location to place a suspect (or at least their phone) in a certain location. Evidence found on cell phones has also been used – for some reason, dope dealers seem to like taking pictures with their stash. And of course, there’s always text messages.

A new technique may be lifting fingerprints from phones. The process would utilize a picture on the phone of someone’s hand and fingers, and attempt to match that like you would a latent print developed at a crime scene. The process may be no different from what is being done now. Latent prints are placed on a card, and pictures are taken. The digital photos are what are used for comparison.

If a fingerprint on a cell phone is used, you can expect challenges from defense lawyers. The prosecutor will have to convince the court the process for making the comparison is reliable, which may be a problem.

For starters, there could be problems with manipulating the photos in order to get something to use for comparison. The photos will probably need to be enhanced in some way, and you can expect defense lawyers to challenge the way that is done. Some adjustment will have to be made for the photo itself, since no camera produces an exact representation of what it is capturing. Establishing the admissibility of the photo of the fingerprint will therefore have to be the first hurdle the State will have to meet.

Even if the State can establish the identification is reliable, I seriously doubt this is going to be a common practice. I can’t imagine many situations where it would be relevant. Maybe if someone is holding dope, and all you can see is their hand, the fingerprint could be used to establish possession. I can’t think of many other situations though. In most cases, you would think if a picture is being taken, you could identify who was in the picture. You also might have problems with identifying location, and time, if that’s important.

There will be an even bigger problem when you are trying to use the photograph to prove possession of a controlled substance. The problem is proving what the substance is. If you don’t have it, there’s no way to test; it could be baking soda just as easily as it could be cocaine.

So, it’s an interesting concept, but don’t expect it be coming to a courtroom near you anytime soon.”

Based on reading this information from Walter, I stand by my contention this is an investigative tool for law enforcement. However, such images are unlikely to be used as evidence in court. It seems there will be problems with relevance, reliability, and authenticity. These hurdles may in time be overcome as technology advances.

Input from Photographic Evidence Expert Witness Dr. James Ebert:

For a more in-depth understanding of this practice, I reached out to Experts.com member and expert witness Dr. James Ebert. Dr. Ebert is a forensic photogrammetrist who is regularly called to interpret and testify about photographic and mapped evidence in civil and criminal matters. You can learn more about Dr. Ebert’s expertise and practice by visiting his website ebert.com.

Dr. Ebert’s comments left me feeling behind the times when I heard about the use of digital photos as a law enforcement tool. Here is what he had to say:

“It has been widely known and discussed on the web for a decade or more that identifiable fingerprints can be recovered from photographs for good or bad purposes, given that the photos are of sufficient resolution, lighting, focus, and that enough of the fingerprint can be seen to allow a match to be attempted.  Faces published on the internet can, of course, also be identified through photo matching services like TinEye reverse image search, or facial recognition software.  Both fingerprints and faces can, for instance, be run on the FBI’s new Next Generation Identification system by law enforcement agencies around the country.  This does not insure false positive results as are common with all automated fingerprint or facial identifications.  I have never attempted to make identifications of fingerprints in my practice as a forensic photogrammetrist, but are certainly possible and they should be just as reliable as are those done with fingerprint or facial data collected in other ways.  I am often, however, called upon to do facial identifications from photographic evidence. Whether such fingerprints and facial identification are ethical clearly depends on whether they are done for ethical purposes.  Identification of possible criminals from fingerprints by law enforcement is an example of a good use of technologies, and if done for purposes like hacking or harassment it’s not.”

Based on Dr. Ebert’s comments, it appears this practice has been considered and possibly utilized for some time. As Dr. Ebert mentioned, there is potential for abuse in matters of hacking and harassment. I cannot speak for Walter, but I imagine he would think there is potential for abuse by law enforcement as well.

Technology is changing so rapidly that it is difficult to keep up with all the advancements. What we’re doing with this blog is trying to discover how technology impacts the criminal justice system. If you have any suggestions for future  posts on technological advancements in criminal or civil justice, please comment below.

 

 

Accident Investigation & ReconstructionForensic Accident InvestigationTransportation

Southwest Airlines Engine Failure: Aviation Accident Investigation

If you are anything like me, you have constant access to your Twitter feed. Besides the fact that it’s a platform for developing relationships with professionals across the world, it is my source for news. I use it to find out what is going on in the justice system, legal technology, and world events. Today, my feed erupted with news of a Southwest Airlines emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport. If you use Twitter, your feed probably reacted similarly.

According to an article from CBS Channel 3 in Philadelphia, the airliner made a successful emergency landing, “after an engine blew out as the plane left LaGuardia Airport in New York on Tuesday morning.”

It seems that after the explosion in the engine, some shrapnel damaged one of the passenger windows causing the plane to depressurize. Early reports describe one passenger as being partially sucked out of the plane at the broken window. A horrifically frightening event for certain. Luckily, the plane made a safe emergency landing. It appears several passengers were injured and one life was lost.

These incidents leave passengers shaken and afraid. Some suffer physical and emotional damage. Those of us who hear of these events experience a feeling of unease the next time we have to take a flight. Safety, is the top priority for travelers and transportation companies alike, which is why agencies like the NTSB react swiftly to the news of an emergency landing due to engine failure. At the time of this writing, the NTSB is about to hold their first news conference on this aviation accident.

Since matters like this often lead to litigation, I reached out to some of our aviation accident investigation and reconstruction expert witnesses. As of publication, I received one response. We will update the blog post if other responses come in.

I provided six questions to aviation expert witness Robert Ditchey. You can learn more about Mr. Ditchey by visiting his website Ditchey.com.

Let’s hear from the aviation accident investigator:

Nick: Where would an aviation accident investigation begin?

Mr. Ditchey: The most important starting point is to quarantine the aircraft itself and do a thorough inspection of the aircraft and all of its parts and components.  That is quickly followed by an examination of the maintenance records, which are also quarantined immediately.

Nick: Is it common for an engine failure to break a window and cause cabin depressurization?

Mr. Ditchey: Engine failure itself is today very uncommon.  It is even more uncommon to have resultant damage to the aircraft as a result of engine failure.  The engine is designed to contain any mechanical damage to the engine.

Nick: It seems an incident like this has a variety of different issues including: engine failure, engine maintenance, safety protocols, aircrew training and response to emergency. What issue takes priority?

Mr. Ditchey: None take priority per se.  All are very important.

Nick: What is the NTSB’s priority in responding to this incident?

Mr. Ditchey: NTSB’s first priority is to discover what caused the engine failure.

Nick: What is the airline’s priority in responding to this incident?

Mr. Ditchey: Find out what happened and ensure that it won’t happen again.

Nick: Any thoughts or comments you would like to add…

Mr. Ditchey: The traveling public needs to be assured that the odds of a fatality are minuscule and that nobody is going to get hurt.  Next, we all need to give the NTSB some breathing time and our patience to let the investigators do their job.

 

 

EngineeringExpert WitnessInsurancelegaltech

Robot Rights and Liability: Do they need legal rights? Here’s what one expert witness has to say…

Have you been following the advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics? There are some really fascinating developments in the fields. Just this week I’ve read about artificially intelligent systems used to identify people likely to commit a crime (before it happens); robotics systems being used in construction; unmanned aerial vehicles; self-driving cars; and, of course, it seems a week cannot go by without a new headline about sex robots.

Last Friday, I found some news stories that were really interesting. It appears a 2017 report from the European Commission had “a paragraph of text buried deep in a European Parliament report, that advised creating a ‘legal status for robots,'” according to this article from The Daily Mail.

I found this quite fascinating and had to dig deeper. Why would we need to develop a legal status for robots? What would be the point? An article in Futurism stated, “If a robot, acting autonomously injures or otherwise wrongs a human, who will be held responsible? Some European lawmakers think that the best way to resolve this question will be to give robots ‘electronic personalities,’ a form of legal person-hood.”

To me, there is a simple answer to this topic. The owner and/or the manufacturer would be held liable. Why would society need something beyond existing negligence, product liability, and consumer protection laws?

According to the report, the European Commission does not want to give robots legal status equal to humans. Rather, they want to give them a status similar to corporations. The concern doesn’t seem to apply to your automation-style robots, but rather those capable of self-learning.

I contend we do not need new theories of liability to address this issue. It should be handled just like owning an automobile. As the owner of a car, I must have it insured. Insurance covers personal injury and property damage caused by the vehicle if I am driving it or if another driver is covered by my policy. If the vehicle malfunctions and causes damage due to a manufacturing, design, or warning defect, then I sue the manufacturer (or another injured party may sue the manufacturer). As such, owner and manufacturer are the responsible parties. My automobile doesn’t require its own legal status.

A robot, sentient or not, does not require its own legal status. It can be insured just like an automobile and the owner should be responsible for insuring the equipment. Furthermore, if it malfunctions and causes harm, the manufacturer can be held liable for any product defects.

I have asked for some input on this topic from a couple of our Experts.com members. At the time of this writing we have received a response from one expert. Dr. Harry Direen, PhD, PE, has a wide variety of expertise including electronic systems, control systems, robotics, software, signal processing, UAV’s/drones, and more. I encourage you to check out his company DireenTech.

Several questions were posited to Dr. Direen. Please see the questions and answers below.

What the expert has to say:

Me: Do you see any need for creating a legal status for robots?

Dr. Direen: No… robots are not humans, they are machines.  Despite the hype, I do not believe robot technology is anywhere near thinking on their own or being responsible for their actions.

Me: Are there any positive reasons to create a legal status for robots?

Dr. Direen: No, not that I know of.

Me: Are there any negatives you can think of in creating a legal status?

Dr. Direen: Yes, as a society we start legally blurring the lines between humans and the machines we create.  I don’t believe we elevate humans in the process, but just the opposite.  We advance the myth that humans are little more than carbon based machines with no more value than the machines we create rather than highly valued creations of our Creator.

Me: Is there any reason damage caused by robots cannot be addressed by existing legal principles such as product liability (manufacturing, design, or warning defects)?

Dr. Direen: No. Giving robots legal status would simply be an excuse to divorce engineers, designers, and manufactures from the responsibility of their products.

Me: If a robot were to fail and cause personal or property damage, would a forensic investigation apply the same principles as any other failure analysis investigation?

Dr. Direen: Yes, a robot is just a piece of technology like any other.

So there you have it. Dr. Direen and I seem to be in agreement. Existing legal and investigatory principles should apply to robots. There is no need to provide additional legal protections to machinery.

What do you think? Feel free to comment below and let me know your thoughts. It is a fascinating topic. Robotics is a field where I anticipate a great deal of future litigation. As the topic evolves, I’m certain we’ll be discussing it in greater depth.

 

Expert WitnessExpert Witness TestimonyFraudLawyers

Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen’s Home and Office Searched by Feds: Attorney-Client Privilege?

Yesterday, news broke about the FBI raiding the home and office of longtime Donald Trump attorney, Michael Cohen. All the major news outlets and talking heads are discussing the matter. Naturally, I felt I should join in and add some food for thought from the expert witness perspective. Assuming the case against Michael Cohen goes to trial, there are likely to be a variety of experts called to opine on different issues. At the time of this writing, reports indicate the federal government is investigating Mr. Cohen for both bank fraud and wire fraud.

Here is what we have learned since yesterday. According to NBC News:

“On Monday, the FBI raided the law office of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. They were seeking information about a $130,000 payment the attorney says he personally made to adult film star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 election, sources told NBC News.

The search warrants were sought and executed by FBI agents and federal prosecutors in New York in coordination with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team after an initial referral from Mueller’s office.”

We have further discovered that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would have to consult with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if his investigation discovered evidence unrelated to Russian interference in the US election. If such information was discovered, Rosenstein would then have to decide to expand the scope of Mueller’s investigation or refer the new investigation to another US Attorney’s office. It appears the Cohen investigation was referred to the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.

In essence, search and seizure of a lawyers office, where that lawyer maintains protected attorney-client communications, had to go near the top of the Justice Department. Thereafter, a warrant had to be approved by a federal judge, before the FBI could conduct the raid and seize these protected communications (among other evidence).

What about attorney-client privilege?

We should start with a simple definition of the attorney-client privilege. Here is a definition from Nolo.com: “The attorney-client privilege is a rule that preserves the confidentiality of communications between lawyers and clients. Under that rule, attorneys may not divulge their clients’ secrets, nor may others force them to.”

Finding the violation of attorney-client privilege a little disconcerting (note, I am not addressing the possible crime-fraud exception to the rule), I reached out to one of our legal and judicial ethics experts for comment. Experts.com member, Mark Harrison, Esq., is an Arizona-based civil and appellate litigator at the firm of Osborn Maledon, PA. He has extensive experience litigating and testifying in cases involving legal malpractice, legal ethics, and judicial ethics.

My request of Mr. Harrison was as follows, “Do you see any issues arising from this seizure related to fiduciary duties, attorney-client privilege, judicial ethics, or other items?”

Mr. Harrison provided me with a rather thorough explanation based on available information. Details about the subpoena or the documents seeking the subpoena have not been reported at this time. I have included several pertinent comments from Mr. Harrison, below:

“As I am sure you are aware, in order to get a subpoena issued in this situation the US Attorney had to satisfy a magistrate judge or a federal district judge that there was good cause for the issuance of the subpoena.

The potentially dicey ethics aspect involved in a situation of this kind is the risk that confidential client information – other than the information clearly covered by the subpoena – is inadvertently or unintentionally taken by the FBI officers executing the subpoena.”

According to news reports, none of us know whether Mr. Cohen has clients other than President Trump. If he does have other clients, Mr. Harrison explained, “the FBI officers executing the subpoena must exercise great care not to compromise the confidentiality afforded the information of other clients in Mr. Cohen’s files or to compromise the confidentiality of information relating to Mr. Trump that is beyond the scope of the subpoena.”

My personal experience in law firms and my professional responsibility education in law school left me with the belief that the attorney-client relationship was sacred. There was good reason for this as it encouraged clients to be open and honest with counsel so counsel could zealously represent their interests. As such, I am hoping the FBI does exercise great care in the review of these files. However, in reviewing documents, the FBI has to view the documents to know whether or not they are “beyond the scope of the subpoena.”

I had one follow up question for Mark Harrison. I asked if he thought a judge would ask an expert on legal ethics to oversee the review of attorney-client files to make sure the federal agents didn’t go beyond the scope of the subpoena? In asking this question, I also realized that the judge is likely to fill that role. However, I was interested to see if additional oversight might be necessary in this case.

Mr. Harrison said “I would be surprised if the judge or magistrate appoints an expert for that purpose unless Cohen’s lawyer seeks that oversight.”

So, based on information available to us at this point, the attorney-client privilege has or will be breached by the federal agents in their review of documents maintained by Mr. Cohen.

It’ll be interesting to see how this case develops and what other expert witnesses may be involved in a future criminal prosecution.

Does this open Michael Cohen to professional malpractice?

Some questions I have for future blog posts are as follows: Does the breach of attorney-client privilege by the FBI, expose Mr. Cohen to malpractice liability? Does the attorney have a duty to conduct himself in a way that would have precluded the FBI or anyone else from seizing all of his files? Does an attorney have a professional responsibility to avoid suspicion that may potentially place confidential client information at risk of being breached? Or, does the issuance of a search warrant protect the attorney from civil liability?

 

 

 

Accident Investigation & ReconstructionAccident SafetyExpert Witness

Tesla and Uber Self-Driving Systems Result in Fatal Crashes

In the last few weeks we have read several news reports about self-driving car accidents. Tesla and Uber, two companies leading innovation in driverless automobiles, have recently experienced fatal collisions which have hampered their autonomous testing. These are not the first instances of fatal crashes using the self-piloting systems. However, the collisions happened in such a close time frame, the public had to take notice.

On March 18, an Uber autonomous vehicle (AV) was involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian. A Phoenix Business Journal article describes video of incident as follows:

“The video shows the victim Elaine Herzberg walking her bike in the middle of the road. It does not show the actual collision “due to the graphic nature of the impact,” said Det. Liliana Duran in an email. The video also shows an interior view of the driver looking down at something off and on, possibly a phone or computer screen, before looking up in surprise right before the car hits the woman.”

Due to the graphic nature of the video, we have decided not to share it here. There appears to be some elements of distracted driving involved in this crash. Human error seems to have combined with a failure by the autonomous (self-piloting) system, to identify the pedestrian and brake or take evasive action to avoid the collision.

About 5 days after the Uber crash, Tesla experienced a similar incident while their autopilot system was engaged. Engadget reported on this accident explaining:

“The driver of a Model X has died after his electric SUV collided with a median barrier on Highway 101 in Mountain View and was subsequently struck by two other vehicles. The incident destroyed the front half of the vehicle and sparked a fire that involved the battery, leading to Tesla sending an employee to investigate. Witnesses reported seeing a fireball during the crash.”

In a follow-up article today, Engadget has gone on to state that the NTSB is unhappy that Tesla shared information about the accident. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, went ahead and blogged that autopilot was engaged but that the driver had removed his hands from the steering wheel for the six seconds prior to impact. The NTSB says Tesla has been cooperative in all previous accident investigations, but evidently they did not want this information made public. Also, it seems the deceased driver, had some concerns about the autopilot system according to his family.

The family claims “he had brought concerns to a Tesla dealership that his Model X had previously swerved toward the same median where the accident happened.”

What gets investigated when autopilot fails?

Readers may think that some elaborate investigation needs to take place since we are dealing with driverless automobiles. The truth is, this boils down to an automotive / vehicular accident reconstruction issue.

Certainly there is advanced programming involved and the crash data retrieval (CDR) may require new methods or new technologies to access information, but the data must be recovered nonetheless.

The NTSB even states, “At this time the NTSB needs the assistance of Tesla to decode the data the vehicle recorded.” They probably require help in accessing the data from Tesla’s proprietary system, but it is still a matter of CDR. If Elon Musk knows that the driver removed his hands from the wheel for six seconds prior to impact, he must have learned of this through the data retrieval process used by Tesla.

The same is true in the Uber crash. They already have dash-cam footage that shows the vehicle did not slow before striking the pedestrian. In that instance, an accident recontstructionist, automotive engineer, or automotive software engineer will have to analyze the self-driving sensors, data, and response of the software, to determine why the car failed to respond while on autopilot.

Both of these accidents require failure analysis. What seems new to us as a society, is that these crashes involved a failure of software, rather than brakes, tires, steering columns, or seat belt failures (failures that have become common and often result in a recall to fix a feature).

The technology and collection methods may change. However, the theories of liability and the investigation remain pretty constant. We have two automobile crashes resulting in death. They require a thorough accident reconstruction investigation to determine the cause of the accidents. Once determined, matters of negligence, product liability, and fault still apply.