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Monday, December 01, 2008

Report: Police tampered with taser recordings

December 1, 2008
by Sue Dremann, Palo Alto Weekly Staff

An audio-video forensics expert has called into question the integrity of Palo Alto police conduct following a March 15 incident in which police shot a man twice with Taser guns.

Palo Alto police flatly deny that any tampering with evidence has taken place.

The analyst's report alleges that two of three police audio-video recordings made during the Taser incident were subsequently edited. The three recordings should have been uniform but are not, according to Gregg Stutchman, chief forensic analyst at Stutchman Lab in Napa.

The recordings are being used as evidence against Palo Alto resident Joseph Anthony Ciampi, who is facing a felony charge of assaulting a police officer stemming from the March 15 run-in with police.

On Monday, Ciampi's attorney plans to ask the court to suppress the audio-video evidence against his client. Ciampi was zapped twice with Tasers by Palo Alto police officers during the altercation.

The incident began when a neighbor, Ken Alsman, complained to police about a man who was living in a van on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Ramona Street.

Ciampi's van had been parked in front of Alsman's house for weeks at a time, moving in accordance with the city's 72-hour parking law but often returning to the spot, Alsman said in a dispatch tape of the call.

According to police reports, Alsman said Ciampi's presence made Alsman's wife uncomfortable.

At about 10 a.m. on March 15, police Officers Kelly Burger and Manuel Temores and Agent April Wagner approached Ciampi's blue van and asked him to come out, but they reported Ciampi would not open the door and refused to speak with the officers. Temores used a ruse to lure Ciampi from the van by pretending to phone in a request to have the vehicle towed.

Ciampi opened the door and became visibly upset at the prospect that his "home" could be towed, police reports state. An argument ensued, during which Ciampi was tased twice.

Video and audio recordings were made by equipment in a police car and on Burger's and Temore's Taser guns.

Stutchman, who was hired by Ciampi's attorney, noted in an Aug. 14 report that there were discrepancies in the recording times of the three tapes, which should have been uniform.

Between 7.5 and 17.5 seconds of audio-video material are missing from the two Taser recordings, Stutchman reported.

Using Burger's cruiser recording as the baseline, Stutchman established that 8 seconds elapsed between the first Taser firing by Burger and the second Taser firing by Temores.

But on Burger's Taser audio the time between the end of the first Taser blast and the beginning of the second is 0.432 seconds -- less than a half-second -- indicating a 7.5-second interval is missing from the recording.

On Temores' Taser camera, which records the time of the incident, only the first Taser blast is on the recording. The second one is not present at all. As much as 10 seconds are purported missing from the Temores Taser data.

The forensics report also found discrepancies between content of the audio recordings. The cruiser's audio captures Ciampi and Agent April Wagner talking:

Ciampi: "They've arrested me for nothing."

Wagner: "The subject is in custody. He's been Tased twice."

Ciampi: "This is totally bull----."

But on one of the Taser recordings, Ciampi's last response is missing.

"Based on the analysis in this report, it is my opinion to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, that both Temores and Burger Taser videos have been altered and edited, removing content," Stutchman wrote in his report.

Stutchman is a former police officer and a state licensed investigator whose credentials include the Robert Blake murder trial and Michael Jackson child-molestation case, according to the company website.

Palo Alto's Independent Police Auditor, Robert Miller, said he looked at all of the material and hasn't seen evidence of intentional or accidental manipulation of the videos or audios. But he said he hadn't seen Stutchman's report.

"Anything coming out of this case that raises questions is something that we will pursue," independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco confirmed.

David J. Beauvais, Ciampi's attorney, said the Santa Clara County Crime Lab is investigating if the recordings were altered, but he is still waiting for the report.

Amy Cornell, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office, of which the crime lab is a part, said her office can't comment on the evidence or on Ciampi's case.

But "in general terms, tampering with evidence could be a criminal act. There are many variables that come into play on whether or not to file charges," she said.

Palo Alto Police spokesman Dan Ryan said the department chose the x26 Taser specifically because it is "tamper-proof." Taser International, Inc., the company that makes the x26 Taser and the recording device, the Taser Cam, touts on its website that the x26 has "secure" files that are saved on encrypted data files that are secure from tampering.

But Stutchman said he was surprised more security safeguards were not incorporated into the Taser Cam. "The format of these Taser Cams is very editable. ... What I got was not encrypted," he said. Stutchman added that any copy would have been encrypted with separate deciphering software used to translate the information, he said.

A company spokesperson has not returned calls.

Stutchman said he analyzed digital recordings that were given to Ciampi's attorney but had not analyzed the original computer files, which are with the District Attorney's Office.

Miller, the independent police auditor, said he could not comment on the Taser camera's security, but noted the camera has only been on the market two or three years. "To call anything tamper-proof is more marketing than analysis," he said.

Beauvais plans to ask the court to throw out the audio-video recordings and other evidence. He alleges that his client's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure and 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law were violated. When the officers induced Ciampi to exit the van under false pretenses, they had no reasonable suspicion that he was involved in criminal activity, Beauvais wrote in court filings.

Beauvais argued that threatening to take over Ciampi's van was coercive and constitutes carjacking, since Ciampi was still inside. The threat to take his property meets the statutory definition of attempted extortion, according to Beauvais' court papers.

It is not illegal to live in a vehicle in Palo Alto on public streets, although the city is working on an ordinance to change the law. Ciampi filed a claim against the city in September for more than $11 million alleging civil-rights violations. The city rejected the claim on Oct. 15, determining that officers did nothing wrong, according to City Attorney Gary Baum. Ciampi said he would pursue a civil action against the city after his criminal case is resolved.

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