Caught on Tape

Other amateur filmmakers record their crimes to show off and brag to their friends about their accomplishments. The video serves as proof of what they did and how they accomplished it and becomes the ticket by which they move up to a higher level within their group or gang. [11] Finally, like sexual deviated, they can relive the excitement of the experience by reviewing the videotape.

Implications for Law Enforcement

Knowing that individuals have video taped their criminal acts has important implications for the law enforcement community. Investigators in sex offense units have long recognized the need to include in the original arrest warrant for sexual offenses any photographic or recording devices, photograph albums, videotapes, and audio tapes, and magistrates routinely issue such warrants. However, when investigators apply for warrants to search the perpetrator’s residence in such offenses a burglary, robbery, or assault, the tend not to include requests to seize audio or video materials.

Without sufficient, specific justification, magistrates probably would not sign an original warrant to include the seizure of audio or videotapes. Thus, investigators must establish probable cause of the existence of video evidence related to a particular crime, include these facts in the applications for a search warrant, and specifically list such items to be seized during the execution of the warrant. [12]

To establish probable cause, preliminary investigators should routinely inquire if victims, complainants, and witnesses know of the presence or use of a video recorder. Victims or witnesses may have observed the criminal with a video camera during the commission of a crime but might not think to volunteer this information to investigators, especially because video recorders have become so commonplace. Investigators should bear in mind that some complainants may not think to report the theft of a video recorder.

Informants, who may have been at the scene of the crime or received details from the perpetrators, can provide valuable information on the existence of video equipment, if investigators remember to ask. Investigators have used the information obtained from informants to help establish the probable cause necessary to support their request for the issuance of warrants to recover video evidence.


Next to being able to submit the defendants’ signed confessions, most law enforcement officers would like to be able to obtain a videotape of the defendants committing the crime or enjoying the fruits of their labor. And, increasingly, a variety of criminals, from sex offenders and vandals to burglars and murderers have chosen to immortalize their exploits on video.

Awareness of this growing trend remains the key to catching criminals on tape. Investigators must routinely ask offenders, victims, witnesses, and informants about the existence of video evidence in order to establish the probable cause required to seize this important evidence during the execution of a search warrant. Offenders who film their criminal acts often let their egos override their common sense. Yet, investigators who remain clear-headed can make sure that the next film these budding stars appear in is the 11 o’clock news, as they are escorted to prison.


[1] E. White, “Teen Killer Makes Videotape of Himself Mutilating Severed Head,” in Associated Press [online], May 1, 1996.
[2] “Five Teens Are Depicted Vandalizing on Tape,” The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, March 10, 1995, A14.
[3] “Three Teens Get Four Year Terms for Paint Ball Gun and Bashing Spree,” The Los Angeles City News Service, July 8, 1996, 47.
[4] Tracy Thompson, “Video Brings the Crime into D.C. Courtroom,” The Washington Post, May 23, 1991, C1; “Robbers Capture Themselves in the Act on Videotape,” in Reuters North American Wire [online], March 28, 1991; and “Five Men Video Tape While Attacking and Urinating on Victim,” in Associated Press [online], October 1989.
[5] Autoeroticism has been variously described in the literature, but cases generally have several characteristics in common. They include sexual activity engaged in private, with a combination of ritual and endangerment, and the use of fantasy aids. In these practices, an apparatus is used to reduce normal levels of oxygen to the brain. This is thought to enhance the orgasmic response. See R.R. Hazelwood, P.E. Dietz, and A.W. Burgess, Autoerotic Fatalities (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1983).
[6] “Videotape of Vandalism Used to Find Suspects,” The Des Moines Register, April 2, 1994, 4.
[7] D. Hench, “Police to View Videotape of Vandals,” Portland Press Herald, April 2, 1996, B3.
[8] Psyche Pascual, “Owner of Burned Store Still Investigated,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1992, B1.
[9] Sheriff Stone, Robeson County, NC, in G. Borg, “Teen Videotaped Wearing Belongings of James Jordan After His Murder,” The Chicago Tribune, February 16, 1996; and “Jordan Jurors Watch Tape,” Newsday, February 16, 1996, A22.
[10] “Videotapes of Graffiti Earn Bucks,” The Des Moines Register, November 10, 1994, 3.
[11] Anthony J. Pinizzotto, Ph.D., “Deviant Social Groups,” Law and Order 44, no. 10 (1996): 75-80
[12] Regulations and laws regarding the application for search warrants differ between jurisdictions and can change within jurisdictions. Each officer must seek guidance from legal counsel as to the specific requirements for obtaining search warrants when the videotaping of crimes may have occurred.

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