iEvidence: How the Smartphone Can Improve Adjudication

By: Ragan Morrison, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth a novel.  There are many cases where a recording of an event may prove decisive in a legal proceeding—whether it’s footage of a traffic intersection or from a police body-cam, a video will often tell a judge or jury just about all they need to know.  This is not a new phenomenon, but the explosive proliferation of mobile devices today means there is ever more footage of people’s daily lives, including times that may be of significance in a future legal controversy.

Courts have been adjusting to this reality, and the value of this evidence can be even greater in the more informal setting of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting at a school or a disability benefits hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  We in the HeLP clinic have already encountered instances where children’s classroom behavior is recorded by teachers on their phones, and we hope to use footage like this in certain cases to help prove the disability of the child and get them the financial assistance they need and deserve.

Agencies like the Social Security Administration (SSA) have been making strides in adopting technology to improve their administrative services.  Already the SSA allows for easy uploading and downloading of case documents online, which has streamlined the process for disability hearings.  Our hope is that in the future we may also be able to easily upload video files, so that an ALJ can witness firsthand a child’s behavior at home or at school and see how a disability affects his or her day-to-day life.

While courts have been evolving to accommodate this new kind of electronic information, they are constrained by legal rules that govern which evidence can even be admitted at trial and how it may be presented to a jury.  In the less adversarial kinds of legal proceedings we see in the clinic, however, the judges or review panels are not so strictly bound by these rules of evidence.  Consequently, those of us representing clients should make liberal use of things like smartphone video to prove our cases.

Hopefully someday soon it will be easy and commonplace to show an ALJ a teacher’s recording of a child having a meltdown in class because of his autism, or to let everyone in an IEP meeting watch as a kid struggles with her homework because it isn’t properly tailored to accommodate her dyslexia.  Since the ultimate goal in any case is to get to the truth, hard proof of something merely claimed on paper holds the promise to lead to results more efficiently and decisively than traditional hearings or written briefs.

Furthermore, sometimes the legal and medical technicalities of a case can mask the human dimension of childhood disability.  Certainly, for overworked ALJs who must handle hundreds of cases, or for school teachers and administrators trying to educate all their students on a shoe-string budget, it is understandable that the significance and meaning of a child’s individual circumstances can be rather lost in all the work.  But the greatest power of a recording is its capacity to put the viewer into the moment it shows, and this has the potential to restore some of the human depth too often lost in law.

Ultimately, our modern lives are increasingly watched, listened to, saved and sent, not so much by an Orwellian Big Brother, but by our own choices and access to technology.  Our constant connectivity and ever-present digital devices can be a growing source of stress and an enemy of privacy, but they do hold the promise of preserving our experiences and letting us share them.  We in law should take advantage of this reality to benefit our clients and help get them to favorable resolutions based on the documented, visible proof carried in our pocket.