COVID-19 Forces Oklahoma Peace Officers to Make Changes
As the coronavirus spreads, peace officers are limiting their interaction with the public, especially when it comes to vehicle collisions.
“If somebody calls us because they’re in a car crash, that’s different than somebody calling because they want to give us information on someone who is having a domestic (violence situation), or somebody who just had a burglary occur,” explained Oklahoma City Police Sgt. Gary Knight. In other words, officers might not respond to the scene of a serious injury collision. These changes are not limited to OCPD. Highway Patrol troopers will not handle drivers’ licenses or other documents. And, at traffic stops, deputies at the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office speak to drivers from the passenger side window.
“The bottom line is: we still have wives, kids, significant others and families at home,” said Blackwell Police Chief Dewayne Wood. “It puts a lot on the officer to remember that we are all responsible for ourselves.” “These procedural changes are not just cosmetic,” emphasized Oklahoma City auto accident lawyer Phillip P. Owens II. “They directly affect the way our office collects evidence in car crash claims.”
The police accident report is often the evidentiary cornerstone of a vehicle collision claim. Medical bills are usually just as important. If the police report is unavailable, attorneys must look elsewhere for evidence. A vehicle’s Event Data Recorder often provides all the information the police accident report would have provided, and more. Investigators often use black box flight recorders to determine the cause of airplane crashes. Similarly, attorneys use EDR information to help determine liability in a car crash claim. EDRs measure and record information like:
- Vehicle speed,
- Steering angle,
- Engine acceleration or deceleration, and
- Brake application.
This determination is not absolute because insurance company defenses, like contributory negligence, might apply.
Electronic evidence in general, and EDR evidence in particular, is often very compelling in court. Tech-savvy jurors usually respond very well to electronic evidence. And, if the EDR was working properly, insurance company lawyers usually cannot successfully challenge its information. Computers are never wrong and never biased. EDR information can make or break a case, especially in the absence of a police report, and attorneys must act aggressively to ensure this evidence is available in court. Generally, insurance companies destroy totaled vehicles within a few days of an accident. If that happens, any physical evidence, such as the EDR, is gone.
So, attorneys send spoliation letters to insurance companies in these situations. These letters create a legal duty to preserve any potential physical evidence, including the EDR. Moreover, Oklahoma has very strict vehicle data privacy laws. Generally, only the owner or an authorized agent can access this data, and that access must be for a very limited purpose, such as vehicle diagnostics. Thus, attorneys must usually obtain court orders before they can access and download EDR information.