Court Upholds Theft Defense Challenging Narration Accompanying Video Surveillance

- Dmitry Gurovich

Retail stores that are typically equipped with surveillance cameras often use recorded videos as evidence of crimes that allegedly transpire in their premises. When properly authenticated, surveillance videos depicting alleged misconduct can be used as evidence against a defendant under the Silent Witness Theory.

A possible theft defense can arise when prosecution presents a witness whose testimony consists in a narration accompanying the surveillance video. Depending on the personal knowledge of the witness, whose narration is being offered as evidence of an alleged crime that purportedly appears on the video, such narration may or may not be admitted in evidence. In Illinois, the appellate court had the opportunity to address the defendant’s challenge of the narration’s admissibility after establishing that the narrator did not have personal knowledge of the events depicted on the video.

People v. Sykes 

A jury convicted defendant Sykes of theft and the trial court eventually sentenced the defendant to 150 days in jail. The prosecution presented a single witness who was a retail store loss prevention manager. This witness narrated the contents of a video while the jury was viewing it. The video allegedly showed the defendant counting money from a cash register.

Part of the narrator’s testimony mentioned that the video being viewed was a mere copy of the original and appeared unclear. On cross examination, the lone witness admitted that he had not personally witness the defendant take any money from the cash register and that his only knowledge was based on what he observed on the video footage. No other proof of theft was presented but the jury convicted the defendant based on the narration of the prosecution’s sole witness.

Defendant Acquitted

On appeal, theft defense counsel challenged the admissibility of the narration because it violated the silent witness theory. The appellate court ruled in favor of the defendant, stating that the witness did not have first-hand knowledge of the events shown on the video. Taken together with the poor video quality of the evidence, the court said that it could not readily ascertain whether the defendant actually removed anything from the register. The court reversed the defendant’s conviction.

If you or a family member is charged with theft, you may be entitled to theft defenses available in your situation. An experienced criminal defense attorney can assess your situation, weigh all the evidence against you, and identify potential weaknesses of the arrest process and the object and testimonial evidence for the prosecution.

In Los Angeles and throughout the United States, the lawyers of Gurovich, Berk & Associates have more than 35 years of collective experience in criminal defense cases such as theft, gun crimes, drug crimes, and white collar crimes. We invite you to call our offices today at (213) 385-1555 to speak to an attorney about your situation.