Illinois Supreme Court: iPhone Recording of Surveillance Video is Not Barred by Best Evidence Rule (People v. Smith)
Carl Smith Jr. was convicted of residential burglary and sentenced to 6 ½ years’ imprisonment. The conviction arises from the crime victim arriving home to find a door that did not open properly, and who subsequently found dozens of missing hydrocodone pills, removed jewelry, and that an apartment window had been broken.
At the trial court level, Mr. Smith moved to exclude iPhone video evidence which re-recorded surveillance video. Mr. Smith argued the videos were not admissible pursuant to the Illinois Rule of Evidence 1003 and 1004, or alternatively that they are barred by the common law best evidence rule. In short, Mr. Smith contended that the duplicate video did not meet the requirements to overcome the preference that the original be admitted. After hearings on the topic, the Jackson County judge denied the motion to bar admission. Mr. Smith was convicted after a jury trial. On appeal, the Fifth District Appellate Court affirmed that the iPhone video footage of the video surveillance system was properly admitted into evidence.
The first question in front of the Illinois Supreme Court was whether the video clips of surveillance footage re-recorded on an iPhone are admissible pursuant to Illinois Rule of Evidence 1003 or 1004, or barred by the best evidence rule. The second question the Court answers is whether Mr. Smith forfeited arguing that the video clips lacked sufficient foundation to be admissible at trial. The questions about admissibility are reviewed de novo and the trial court’s decisions are reviewed for abuse of discretion.
In the Supreme Court, Mr. Smith argued the iPhone video clips are inadmissible, as they are not the originals of the evidence. The Court broke down the rule through multiple layers.
First, it defined the terms “writing and recordings” to include “photographing,” which also includes “video tapes.” Therefore, the Court reasoned that the clips were considered “writings and recordings,” as defined in Illinois Rule of Evidence 1001, which is in turn applicable to the other rules. Further, the Court reasons the iPhone video is a duplicate due to the “electronic re-recording.” With these definitions, the Rules 1003 and 1004 analysis then come into consideration. A duplicate is generally admissible to the same extent as the original, unless there is a “genuine question about the original’s authenticity, or if there are other reasons that make it unfair to admit the duplicate rather than the original. Rule 1004 also allows the duplicate to be admissible if the originals are lost or destroyed, unless the originals were destroyed in bad faith.
The Illinois Supreme Court cites the plain language of the rules and specific circumstances in the case at bar, to determine that the iPhone video clips are considered duplicates as defined by Illinois Rule of Evidence 1001(4). With that definition, it is then, the Court holds, admissible under Rule 1003.
The Illinois Supreme Court declined to require that the duplicate provide the entirety of the original recording. The Court also rejected the Defendant’s argument that not showing the entire video was unfair, reasoning that there is no no-speculative reason to state that the full recording would have contained relevant evidence. As such, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that video clips recorded on an iPhone, of a video surveillance recording, is admissible evidence. As to the second question, Mr. Smith abandoned the foundation argument by not raising it on appeal.
This is an interesting case to review because it provides a clear real-world example of when the best evidence rule (FRE 1001-1004) applies or does not apply. The Illinois Supreme Court’s analysis provides a clear framework to determine when copies of originals might not be admissible, such as bad faith destruction, authenticity question, or similar sorts of issues. This case also goes to show further, as many cases do, the importance of preserving issues on appeal. It is never bad to be reminded about preservation.
Author: Jake A. Leahy