Grand Strand police departments received an extra six months to streamline their policies for managing high-tech evidence such as body camera videos and cell phone data after local agencies couldn't meet a judge's deadline for implementing the required changes.
The extension followed Circuit Court Judge Steven John's Dec. 1 order that gave agencies in Horry and Georgetown counties 30 days to develop new, uniform policies for tracking evidence and sharing it with defense attorneys and prosecutors.
John's original order was issued on the same day he called together law enforcement leaders from Horry and Georgetown counties and told them they had to craft a plan for addressing evidence-related problems that have arisen in recent cases.
Defense attorneys have raised concerns about access to evidence during criminal trials and John stressed that prosecutors and defense lawyers must have access to all video, audio and other records in order to prepare for cases.
But the magnitude of that task and the agencies' struggles to comply with the deadline led the judge to grant the departments a six-month extension, 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said.
"We're going to certainly work towards that," he said of the new deadline. "There's a lot of stuff there. … We're going to make our best efforts to do that."
One challenge for the police departments will be getting all the agencies to use the same technology. Richardson said some smaller departments have contracts with various vendors and standardizing the procedures across two counties will be a challenge. However, he pointed out the issue isn't unique to the Grand Strand or South Carolina.
"It's not just our problem," he said. "Everybody's trying to deal with that."
In the recent cases that led to John's order, defense attorneys have not accused the solicitor's office of withholding exculpatory evidence, but they have insisted that all records be made available for them to analyze in order for them to best represent their clients.
Police and government officials contend the challenge is the volume of records they are now processing, particularly the hours of video from body and dash cameras and cell phone records.
That evidence must be stored, and many agencies are struggling to manage all of the information.
During the six-month extension, law enforcement officials said all local agencies are connecting with the data management system evidence.com, which allows police departments to store video, photos and other electronic evidence.
Horry County Police Chief Joe Hill said his department has had a smoother transition to the streamlined system because the agency had already been using evidence.com.
Hill said his department filed evidence for major cases such as rapes and murders on the system to test it. That worked, so the HCPD is transferring other files, too.
"For this next six-month time period, we're trying to have all of our officers' cases sent over," he said. "Because it's not just the body cam or in-car video. It's every piece of evidence associated with a case. So if you've got video from an ATM machine or a house or it's pictures of crime scenes, all of that has to be transmitted electronically."
Hill said smaller agencies that haven't used this system and are working with other programs will have to convert, which can be expensive. However, he's optimistic about the agencies' progress.
"We are on the right path," he said. "Everybody's kind of working together. We have a technology committee that Judge John recommended. They put that together, so we all help one another out to make sure we make this a reality."
Criminal defense attorney Tommy Brittain, who has been trying cases about 40 years, said the judge's six-month extension seems reasonable.
Brittain said he's worked with multiple prosecutors over the decades and found them to be transparent with their evidence. The challenge, he said, is a technological one.
For example, one challenge is that prosecutors have been turning in edited body camera videos to defense lawyers during the discovery phase of a case. Richardson said the identities of informants and crime victims should be edited out, not to mention the irrelevant footage. But Brittain and other defense attorneys contend the entire videos should be provided, not just the parts prosecutors want to use at trial.
"What we're all facing is technology," Brittain said. "Defense lawyers and defendants don't want to be in a position to accept the solicitor or the police's idea of what tapes are relevant and what aren't. … The absence of something on a camera can also be exonerating evidence."
And yet there are so many cameras in so many places, not to mention electronic records ranging from cell phone data to Facebook posts, the task of managing that much information is daunting.
"The prosecution is sort of overwhelmed with their duty to collect and catalogue the evidence," Brittain said. "As we get closer to trial, we start to figure out, 'Hey, I'd like to have a record for this day and that day and how about two weeks sooner.' Then we're under the gun."
Despite the challenges, Brittain supports the reforms the agencies and prosecutors are trying to make.
"What I think needs to happen is just what Judge John is doing," he said. "He is clarifying what the duties and responsibilities of the solicitor's office and the police are. Now it's going to be a question of 'Can they comply?' … They're going to have to have a systemic change to give everybody a comfortable feeling."