Can Police Seize Entire Surveillance Recorders?

One of the major flaws in the suspicious death of a teenager at school was that the video was incomplete and partially corrupt. Many, including ourselves, argued that the whole recorder should have been removed so that the police could ensure no tampering or errors occurred (especially since video is recorded over very quickly).

However, it does raise the question of what authority / rights the police have. Can they seize any recorder? Do they need any court order? Are there specific grounds or criteria that would allow them?

I would appreciate any help on this.

Police can seize the whole recorder as evidence if they have probable cause to think evidence of a crime was recorded or that the system was used in the commission of a crime. In the case of a drug dealer in Miami they took the whole system. In some cases police will take the DVR, storage, etc because of the Rosario rule, which requires the original recording be available for the court (even if convenience copies are made). If the owner of a system doesn't hand it over voluntarily, if police have enough reason to they can get a warrant/court order.

"If the police have enough reason to, they can get a warrant/court order." The threshold for 'enough reason to' is incredibly low - if they want it, they will get it. Unlike most warrants that specify what can be searched for/seized, the cops need to view recordings simply to be able to determine if evidence exists. Also, keep in mind that this same rule applies to recorders that don't even show a crime being committed. If the suspect in a crime does the nasty stuff close by, the cops will seek out video from the surrounding area to try and determine the perps movements leading up to and after the alleged crime. LE can (and will) snatch your recorder (w/a warrant if required) if they surmise it 'might' help them in ANY way.

In my experience, most juridictions prefer video to be provided with a native version of the player versus pulling the actual device itself. That said, in situations where we have been unable to provide the video quickly (older system etc) some jurisditions will pull the entire system (typically after a search warrant is obtained). I did have one particular jurisdiction and detective that always threatened to pull the full system no matter how minor the incident. There were several situations where we were left without video coverage for a short period of time until we escalated the situation and the system was returned.

To the point of any specific grounds or criteria to pull the full system, we would typically be more inclined to offer that as an option in more serious cases.

Thanks! Very helpful!

Yes, we've had customers that it has happened to, one being a school in FL.

One of the benefits of edge recording that I've pointed out is that in a similar case, you can take-down 2 or 3 or whatever individual cameras, not an entire 32 channel recorder that had only 2 or 3 cameras witness something. Multiple people have commented to me that it is in fact a significant benefit.

I don't think it's the kind of thing that happens daily, but from what I've heard/seen over the years it HAS happened, and it is enough of a threat in some cases to make alternative recording approaches appealing.

Hi all, this is a UK perspective....

in 10yrs of digital multimedia evidence recovery, I have only had to pull to the legislation card twice! As a police officer lawfully on premises I have a power under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act that enables me to seize property that is, or contains, evidence. If the DVR is unable to export the evidential video then we do quite regularly take the whole unit in order for the recovery to take place in the lab.

When then DVR owner is not connected to the incident, then it is our responsibility to ensure that the premises is not left without protection so we have a number of 'swap out' units. We put these in place whilst we have the DVR in our possession.

If we are likely to have it for some time, or in major cases where it has recorded an incident of very high value, then we liase with the owner or installer to have a new one fitted and the investigation foots the bill!

The only time we seize and don't replace is when the DVR owner is suspected of tampering, or is suspected to tamper, if they are left with it. Also when the DVR owner is a suspect/offender.

Obviously, we would not go down the 'swap out' route on low level crime. In those circumstances we may just take a stream out of a small incident or state that it is not in the publics interest to remove an entire unit for a small value theft.

As people beforehand have stated, it is a poor installation that does not take evidential export into consideration. A DVR must be able to export data that is the same as was recorded, and it must be able to export any amount - 10mins, 10 hrs, or the whole lot!

Also, when people refer to off site storage - this must not be a stream transcode of the original. Any change in the digital make up jeapordises it's evidential worth.

Hope that helps, and thanks IPVM for allowing me to post.


"A DVR must be able to export data that is the same as was recorded, and it must be able to export any amount - 10mins, 10 hrs, or the whole lot!

There are very few surveillance systems that I've encountered that would not have difficulty in exporting huge blocks of video (like days/weeks, etc) without using a method outside of the surveillance system itself (like copying the entire HDD volume).

Also, in the U.S. I've never heard of LE compensating the shop owner when confiscating their recorder as evidence.

Compensating is a nice gesture though I suspect the technical issues are non trivial. Unless you are using a single low end DVR with only fixed cameras, swapping in a new unit can cause a lot of problems. What if I have IP cameras? Or analog PTZs that require a specific PTZ protocol? Will they work with the new temp unit? What if my recorders are part of a network of recorders and my staff needs to monitor them remotely on a single interface? Almost certainly this unit will not.

If I was the user, I'd most likely reject the temp offer and set one up myself or via my integrator to keep continuity with my existing platform/operations.

What, you don't keep a hot-spare dvr just lying around pre-configured and just waiting to be fired up at a moments notice?

Hi John,

yes, in the higher end instalations, I do work together with the installer, to ensure minimum disruption. My priority is to keep the DVR owner 'on side' and the last thing I would want is to give them any reason to deny us access to evidential footage in the future.

Lastly, in regards to the comment by the undisclosed manufacturer,

"There are very few surveillance systems that I've encountered that would not have difficulty in exporting huge blocks of video (like days/weeks, etc) without using a method outside of the surveillance system itself (like copying the entire HDD volume)."

There lies one of the biggest problems in Security DVR manufacturing (IMO).

Bulk export over fast interfaces or the easy removal and reading of HDD's can be a huge selling point if done properly.

All the best


Hi David,

So hypothetically would you have the power to grab an uninvolved neighbors dvr if it possibly was material?

Court order?

And if u did seize it, what if you saw the uninvolved neighbor doing something 'hinky' by accident.

Could one be compelled to use his own dvr against himself?


If by something "hinky" you mean something illegal then yes they could use that against him. I just talked to a friend who is a defense lawyer and she said the plain view doctrine would apply would viewing surveillance footage. Basically, in the line of his normal duties/a legal search he came across evidence of another crime, then it's fair game.

Thanks for the info, Carlton!

In these here parts "Hinky" is often used to convey a sense of a "slightly ilegal" non-violent infraction. Like maybe if you had a box of fireworks in your basement or took a liking to 1w artic lasers or maybe if you often work on after-market nitrous engine upgrades in your backyard at all hours while playing small-stakes texas hold'em with off-duty booth bimbos.

Just trying to frame it such a way so no one would say 'if a cop sees a murder then of course...', tho even then it would be intersting to see what would happen.

Correct me if I'm wrong but if (when) the cops come to my door and accuse me of some heinousity, I need not turn over my dvr if they don't have a warrant.

Without my permission they need a court order, right?

So when they come and ask for my dvr cuz of something that might be on it where i'm not a suspect, you would think worst case scenario is I would say get a court order and take the 5th.

Then if they did get a court order they would have to say what they are intending to find, and if bimbo poker is not on the list (assuming its even illegal), they would just have to watch in disgust and then 'fold'.

Disclaimer: My legal knowledge is purely cinematic and I don't know how to play poker ;)

Then if they did get a court order they would have to say what they are intending to find, and if bimbo poker is not on the list (assuming its even illegal), they would just have to watch in disgust and then 'fold'.

If they did get a court order to review the video for you having illegal fireworks and they saw poker, if poker is illegal in your city/county/state then the plain view doctrine means they could nail you for that too. The example she told me is like this: "If police had a warrant to search a house for a weapon or police were in a house making an arrest and a brick of heroin was on the table, they wouldn't ignore the brick of heroin because that's not what the warrant or the arrest was for. If it's in plain view while they are doing something lawful, then it's fair game. That means searching through video too."

Your questions are starting to make me wonder what you have going on in your basement though.

In my hypothetical basement, I live in SoCal...

However I must admit that after reviewing all applicable plain view federal statutes as well as the numerous relevant case law precedents, both de facto and de jure, not to mention watching the whole first season of L.A. Law and the last half of The Star Chamber (at 3x) that:

You could/would get busted if cops took your dvr because they had probable cause for illegal gambling, and while reviewing your 'basement' camera stream they viewed a small box of fine Cuban habanos in plain view.

However it seems in the case of where the cops believe my neighbor beats his dog and they want my dvr because it has evidence of such, and while playing back the video in sync-multi-view mode they see the aforementioned habanos, it would not be actionable due to fact the there is no reason (unless stated in the warrant) that they should be looking for evidence of dog beating in my card room.

Its like them going thru my desk drawers when they are searching for a stolen truck engine. So viewing a clearly unlrelated stream, even inadvertantly, would constitute an illegal search and therefore not fall under the plain view statute and not be admissible.

But, even if I might theoritically slide, we both know how the real world works, and you have hypothetically scared me into action:

First I chucked my dummy dvr and dug out my ol' 16 channel digital watchdog, and recorded about 5 minutes of video which consists of basically the hypothetical backside of my contractor (played by my brother) explaining to me how to use the unit, saying "blinking red means recording, solid is standby", then i repeat it back to him backwards and finish with "so this button wil start it..."

Then I'm going up to the attic..

This on the other hand is probably not the DVR of choice for the "hinky" :)

Seriously, though who wants really wants their DVR to "watch them"?


Still not close to the worst surveillance product name - go1984

But only thru a merger and after pooling their respective marketing braintrusts, could they acheive the all time worst name: IWatchYouGo

Worst product naming of all time, all industries?

Chevy's hubric introduction to Latin America of the Nova, which of course translates to "It don't go"

Obviously, seizing any video is dependent on the rules of evidence/search and seizure. If the video evidence is physically located at a crime scene, it is good practice to secure the evidence in it's place and apply for a warrant. Many jurisdictions have a telewarrant type of system where the police can remotely make application for the warrant. In their application for the warrant, the police should justify the need to remove the hardware as well as the data. If unsure, they could include an assistance order which would allow them to bring in a technical specialist to assist them in extracting the evidence and in determining if seizing the recording hardware is necessary. Unless emergent, the police should refrain from viewing the video until the warrant is issued.

Remember the Kendrick Johnson case? The FBI just got a subpoena to seize parts of the surveillance system.

Security company owner facing ten years in prison for withholding evidence for not turning over secondary video evidence (crime happened near location; cops think perp would be on video at secondary location wearing the same clothes on the day the crime occurred).

Here is a current, high profile, example of police seizing an entire surveillance system:

Justin Bieber (allegedly) egged his neighbor's house, causing $20,000 worth of damage. Police served a warrant on his place today, and TMZ is reporting law enforcement has seized his video surveillance system. They're looking for footage related to the egg incident.