Court Affirms Machine-Generated Evidence

    Jul 22, 2015

    An appeals court has ruled that machine-generated evidence is not hearsay in a ruling that allowed Google’s satellite images to be used as evidence in a criminal case. 

    United States of America v. Paciano Lizarraga-Tirado concerns the January 2013 arrest by U.S. border patrol agents of Paciano Lizarraga-Tirado in Arizona near the U.S.-Mexico border. He was charged with re-entering the country illegally after being removed in 2012. Lizarraga-Tirado argued that the agents had crossed into Mexico to arrest him.

    During the 2014 trial, the U.S. government introduced a Google Earth satellite image to prove the location of the arrest was in Arizona based on the coordinates recorded by the agent on a handheld GPS device at the time of the arrest. According to Cronkite News, the image included a digital “tack” of the coordinates that was automatically generated by the Google Earth program. Lizarraga-Tirado was convicted in July 2014.

    Roger H. Sigal, lawyer for the defendant, claimed that both the satellite image on its own and the digitally added tack and coordinates were impermissible hearsay.

    “Because a satellite image, like a photograph, makes no assertion, it isn’t hearsay,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the June 18 Ninth Circuit ruling. “A tack placed by the Google Earth program and automatically labeled with GPS coordinates isn’t hearsay. The hearsay rule applies only to out-of-court statements, and it defines a statement as 'a person’s oral assertion, written assertion, or nonverbal conduct.'”

    Kozinski also noted that the ruling does not convey that machine statements don’t present evidentiary concerns given that a machine might malfunction, produce inconsistent results, or have been tampered with. “But such concerns are addressed by the rules of authentication, not hearsay,” he said.

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