Crime and Punishment When the Cameras Are Always Rolling

Increasingly pervasive surveillance technology is rapidly changing society, and it is having an impact on our criminal justice system as well. In some ways, increased surveillance is helpful in achieving a just outcome because video evidence provides a better account of events than eye witness testimony. However, as illustrated by the recent Ray Rice controversy, a camera in every hand and on every corner may have troubling implications for American criminal justice.

Ray Rice, at the time a running back for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, was recorded in an Atlantic City casino by an elevator surveillance camera punching Janay Palmer, his fiancé at the time, and knocking her unconscious during an altercation. The way in which this incident was responded to at various stages by the public and by the NFL raises questions about the administration of justice in America as more of our lives are recorded.

The timeline in this case is important and available here. After punching Janay Palmer, Ray Rice was charged with third degree aggravated assault, and he entered an intervention program that included counseling. Eventually, a recording from a camera in the hallway outside the elevator was made available to the public that showed Rice dragging Janay Palmer’s unconscious body from the elevator. It did not show what had happened leading up to that point, but Rice admitted responsibility. Subsequently, Ray Rice was suspended for two games by the Commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell. It was not until the full video (linked above) was released by TMZ that Rice was cut from the Ravens and suspended indefinitely from football.

Regardless of your position on the appropriateness of Ray Rice’s punishment (both legally and professionally), it is hard to argue that the new video of the incident from inside the elevator introduced any new information material to the crime with which Rice was charged and for which he was punished. Although Roger Goodell has argued that the account given to him by Rice when they met prior to the original suspension was “starkly different” than what was shown on the elevator video, that argument is contested by other sources as well as by logic.

Goodell knew that Rice had knocked his wife unconscious at the time of the initial two-game suspension because the hallway video was publicly available. He also knew that Rice had been charged with aggravated assault. What exactly did Goodell think Rice had done that Goodell himself had described as “a horrible mistake”? Did Rice lead him to believe that he had used a rag soaked in chloroform to peacefully, yet in an aggravated manner, subdue his wife? Or perhaps a judo chop? Without detailing all of the scenarios in which an aggravated assault could lead to an unconscious woman being dragged from an elevator, one punch to the head certainly is not the worst or most objectionable of them, and it is difficult to imagine a less offensive means of rendering a woman unconscious in an elevator that would still qualify as aggravated assault. Goodell must have known that Rice hit Palmer.

The public reaction before and after the elevator videos was just as volatile as Goodell’s. Before the video, fans were supportive of Rice and even cheered for him at practice. After the video from the elevator was released, they wanted to trade in his jersey by the thousands, and condemnation of Rice in the media was nearly universal. He was also wiped out of the newest edition of the Madden NFL video game series; a punishment that even Rams defensive end Leonard Little managed to avoid after actually killing someone (not on video) in a drunk driving accident and avoided again when he continued to drive under the influence. In fact, Jonathan Dwyer, a running back for the Arizona Cardinals, was charged just last week with assaulting his wife and breaking her nose with a head butt. However, there is no video, and the outcry against him has not been nearly as impassioned as that which Ray Rice has faced. In fact, his immediate suspension from the Cardinals is probably more about Rice than it is about his own actions.

Based on the history of the NFL in domestic violence cases, it’s very likely Dwyer would still be on the Cardinals’ roster had Rice punched his wife in his own bedroom rather than in a casino elevator.

The Ray Rice situation raises some important questions for our system of justice in an era of increasingly omnipresent surveillance. If human beings react so much more viscerally to video evidence and lose their objectivity in the process, will that influence their decision-making as jurors and judges? If Rice had gone to trial, would he have been convicted of a more serious crime with the video and a lesser crime without it? Will voters push for harsher sentencing laws for crimes such as Rice’s if those crimes are caught on video more often and shown around the country, and will more pressure be placed on prosecutors by voters to overcharge individuals recorded while committing certain offenses as opposed to those who commit the same offenses but are not captured on video? Is this phenomenon limited to violent crime? Would a jury be more likely to convict a drug user of a higher offense, or would a judge give a harsher sentence, if the evidence against him were a video of him using drugs rather than eye witness testimony that he was using drugs?

Given that the United States already leads the world in incarcerating people, a good argument can be made that the last thing we need in the “land of the free” is more people in prison serving longer sentences for crimes that are not made objectively worse simply because they were caught on camera.