Google Earth is Coming to a Courtroom Near You

Global satellite mapping, augmented by aerial photography and street view photography has created a virtual copy of most of our urban and suburban communities.  This has created a wealth of information and imagery that allows people to do much more than just use their smart phones to navigate or for people to look and see what their back yard looks like on Google Earth or to see the street view image of their office.

This imagery is used extensively in business and commerce.  It also finds its way into the courtroom where satellite maps and images as well as street view images have proven to be a valuable tool for attorneys.

Among the few useful and positive things accomplished by the New York legislature in 2018 was the adoption of a new law that makes it much easier for attorneys and judges to employ these resources.  Although New York does not have a formal comprehensive code of courtroom evidence, various rules of evidence can be found in a number of different parts of the state’s voluminous code.  The new law related to web mapping services and global satellite imaging has been tucked into the Civil Practice Law and Rules as CPLR section 4511(c).

This new law went into effect on January 1, 2019.  It provides that every court shall take judicial notice of an image, map, location, distance, calculation, or other information taken from a web mapping service, a global satellite imaging site, or an internet mapping tool, when requested by a party to the action.  This is subject to a rebuttable presumption that such image, map, location, distance, calculation, or other information fairly and accurately depicts the evidence presented.

Judicial notice is a rule of evidence that allows a fact to be introduced into evidence if the truth of that fact is so well-known, or so authoritatively attested, that it cannot reasonably be doubted.  This means that if a party wishes to introduce a satellite image of an intersection from Google Earth or a Streetside view of residence from Bing Maps, that the court will admit the image into evidence without having the party having to present the evidentiary foundation that might otherwise be required.

The new law says that judicial notice shall be taken based on a rebuttable presumption.  This means that the imagery is presumptively admissible but the other party can rebut this presumption if they present sufficient proof.  To do this the other party would need to present by “credible and reliable evidence” that the image, map, location, distance, calculation, or other information taken from a web mapping service, a global satellite imaging site, or an internet mapping tool “does not fairly and accurately portray that which it is being offered to prove.”  This could be done through witness testimony or other photographic evidence.  This could be as simple showing that the satellite image in question is outdated and there is a newer one available or having a witness with personal knowledge testify that the image is no longer accurate.

The new law provides some procedural requirements.  The party who intends to offer such an image or information at a trial or hearing must give the other party 30 days-notice of their intent to use such information and provide them with a copy of the information or image or give a specific internet address at which such image or information may be found.  The other party then has until ten days before the trial or hearing to object to the request for judicial notice of such and must provide a specific basis for their objection.  This new law should benefit litigants.  It is just one example of how technology continues to change the practice of law.

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