A court case in Australia, which collapsed after the judge ruled that key CCTV evidence was inadmissible, demonstrates the importance of maintaining the chain of custody in the handling of recording media.
A 79-year-old woman had pleaded not guilty to charges of damaging property by fire and breaking and entering with intent to damage or destroy after police claimed she had set fire to her son’s house in 2016.
Magistrate Kathy Crittenden at Grafton Local Court was ruling on the admissibility of CCTV footage that the prosecution claimed showed the events of the house fire on 15 July 2016. She ruled (10 March 2021) that the footage would be prejudicial to the accused and excluded it from evidence.
The court was told that the relationship between the defendant and her son had turned bitter after he had been invited by his parents to live in a kit home built on their property. They were attempting to sell the house, a move which the son was opposing through the courts.
On 15 July 2016, while he was out, he received an alert via his CCTV system that there was a fire at the house. It caused extensive damage to the property and destroyed the hard drive of the CCTV system.
A police investigation determined that the fire was probably the result of a deliberate act, but police forensic teams were unable to recover footage from the hard drive.
In February 2018, police released the remains of the hard drive to the son who subsequently found a company in the US which said it could recover footage from the device if he sent it to them.
In the evidential hearing before the magistrate, the defence solicitor objected to the handling of the hard drive and images obtained from it on the grounds that the chain of custody had been broken when it left Australia.
The defence solicitor claimed the police were only given the footage that the son wanted them to see and that the images had been tampered with. The court was told that police and prosecution had not viewed all the footage on the hard drive and that it had been supplied “selectively” by the son.
The magistrate agreed that there had been a break in the chain of custody which had been compounded by the lab failing to document what had been done to the hard drive.
The prosecution subsequently withdrew the charges.