Scene Investigations - Conducting vs. Completing the Investigative Process
Originally posted 02/29/2012
As investigators we get the opportunity to investigate all aspects of a case. Sometimes a case may require some scene work.
Even if at first it appears that the case does not require a visit to the scene, if you have the opportunity, it is always recommended to go back where the event first began. Whether the case involves a death, a motor vehicle accident, or some type of crime, take the extra time, go that extra mile and visit the scene. You might be surprised once you visit the scene to find out that something could not have occurred the way the witness, victim or police officer claims. It is best not to rely on others to do the work you need to do yourself. You are the investigator, and someone is depending on you to see, hear, and get an overall feel of what the scene was like.
Once you have made up your mind that you should go visit the scene for yourself, the next thing to think about is the date and time of when the original event took place. Sometimes it may be a year or even a few years after the event occurred and you may have more work cut out for you than what you originally suspected. Let’s take for instance a case that is a couple of years old where a motor vehicle accident occurred at a particular intersection on May 12, 2008 at 6:00pm. You head back to the scene and after canvassing the area, you discover this is in the middle of a subdivision. After interviewing some of the people in the neighborhood, you discover that the traffic light that is now at the intersection was not there two years prior. Also you are told that when the traffic light was installed, there were sidewalks put in place and some shrubbery was cut down. This information will give you some things to work on and measurements to take regarding the motor vehicle accident. When you compare the photos taken at the scene, hopefully someone did their job and took some photos, and with the awesome photos you will take; you will be able to find the comparison facts necessary in the case.
One very important aspect to take into account when you plan to visit the scene is the time of year. Say you were given this case in December, 2010. You must take into account the fact that the lighting and weather will be different in December versus in May. So you will need to calculate by using either a site that you are familiar with, or this site http://www.timeanddate.com Let’s take for instance the sunrise time for May 12, 2008 in Denver, CO was at 5:48am and the sunset time was 8:05pm. We know the accident took place at approximately 6:00pm on May 12, 2008; however, you receive the case on December 12, 2010. The sunrise time for December 12, 2010 is 7:12am and the sunset is 4:36pm.
So to continue on for the example case, the best time to visit the scene to get close to a similar light source, you would need to visit the scene at approximately 2:30pm on December 12, 2010 since the accident occurred approximately 2 hours before sunset on May 12, 2008. This may seem like too much trouble to some investigators, but if you want to see what others saw in similar daylight, or if the case was during evening ambient light, then this extra step is worth doing in order to get as close to that time frame as possible. Something as simple as figuring out the best time to visit a scene will assure your client that they hired the right investigator and this will give them confidence in your work product.
Also, if you get the case shortly after the motor vehicle accident occurred, you will have more than one scene to visit. Consider all options available that are connected to the main scene and go visit the mini scenes. For instance, if the vehicle or vehicles are still available to view, it is important to go see these vehicles with your own eyes and take several photos. Again, you as the investigator need to investigate the damage of the vehicles, do not rely on what other people say they saw or thought they might have seen. You might just be amazed at what you see in the photographs you take versus what you saw in person.
When there are motor vehicle accidents involving an intersection with a traffic light, you will want to go to that site, again using the time analysis as described, and sit and watch the light change for yourself. Once you investigate the traffic light and document all necessary information, you will want to take this a step further and contact the traffic engineers who maintain that particular intersection. The traffic engineers could be a private company or department of a jurisdiction which may be at the state, county or municipal level.
These are important extra steps necessary in order to either collaborate what witnesses have stated, or dismiss their statements. Another reason to check traffic lights yourself, and then make contact with the traffic engineers is to ensure there was not a power outage, maintenance, or weather related issues on the date in question. By checking the pattern of the lights yourself, you will then be able to discuss what you documented with the traffic engineers. Perhaps you might even alert them to an issue they did not realize they had with that particular traffic light.
Times and dates are not the only thing to think about when you visit a scene. The temperature, as well as the type of weather has an influence on the entire scope of your investigation. To find the temperatures and weather on a given date and time, one site to use is http://www.wunderground.com, and you will find more than enough weather information to complete your investigation.
Don’t forget water and the rate of flow during certain times of the year as well. If you need to go back to the scene of an accident involving water; the water levels, weather, time and date will all have an effect on how you need to conduct your investigation. To find water flow and temperatures an informative site to use is http://www.usgs.gov, which is full of information on water past and present of the United States. For other countries Google the words “water flow data” for your region as well as the name of the water resource you are interested in finding more information about.
When you are hired by a client, whether an attorney, another investigator, or a private citizen, the client needs to feel confident that you will do a thorough investigation, not a haphazard or simple investigation (unless of course they specifically ask for a simple investigation). Also, if you are being contacted to do an investigation or a reinvestigation, more than likely the first investigation was not conducted thoroughly or satisfactorily from the beginning. By explaining to clients that you take these extra steps in your investigations, you are telling them you go that extra mile that others may not. You are completing, instead of simply conducting, an investigation. These added ideas could be simple things even your clients have not thought about, which might give them that “aha” moment, and sometimes that is all it takes to get you the job. Remember, just a few more steps in the investigative process can gain you leaps in your quality of work as well as gains in the confidence of your clients, the choice is up to you.
There are several key points to scene investigations:
-- Likely multiple scenes
-- Likely different witness perspectives
-- Likely different investigative perspectives
-- Completing vs. Conducting investigations
What should the attorney, private client or insurance company be prepared for in having an skilled and experienced investigative process?
First, what is a scene? Well, it is not necessarily a 'crime scene' - it is where an event or incident took place. It has not been determined if a crime occurred until after the official investigation is complete -- and even then, that could be conclusively inaccurate. Suicides are not crimes, accidents may be - such as some motor vehicle collisions. Second, as Karen pointed out, there will almost ALWAYS be multiple scenes. In fact, I would say ALWAYS! If the incident involves a person, and a place and a thing -- those are at least three scenes. Driver, intersection and vehicle. Not just the driver, not just the intersection and not just the vehicle. They are all integral pieces of the puzzle - of the investigation. Unfortunately, more often than not, all that is requested is to 'go to the scene' (intersection). If the official investigation were limited to the intersection, the attorney-client would be all over the inadequate and, frankly, incompetent investigation. In your report, document specifically what the assignment and instructions were. Not every time will you get to see each of the integral components - or scenes - but recommend that all efforts be tried. In addition, don't limit yourself (i.e. your investigation and your client's case) to the immediate and instant scenes. Canvas the neighborhood, find other drivers from statements and reports that were at the intersection. I once found a bicyclist who happened upon a scene from no more than a responding paramedic remembering that his friend, the bicyclist, was already on scene giving aid but left before giving a statement.
We have all learned that there are as many variables to an incident as there are witnesses, distractions, attentiveness, and perspective. Every person has various functioning capacities of the five senses. Interviews and investigations should be conducted that inquire into each of these senses. Perhaps a nearby vehicle driver was on the phone and only saw the vehicles impact, but the passenger heard the sounds of skidding and saw the impact. As Karen described in her article, perspective is different, environments change. A four-way intersection has at least four different perspectives. That does not take into account every vehicle, occupant, position, lighting, attention and other important considerations. The investigative and interview process needs to cover each of these.
As private sector investigators, we primarily re-investigate official investigations. There are examples of primary cases conducted by our profession, such as workplace investigations. We will dissect and analyze everything (you do, right?) and are very critical of the official investigation. So critical, that if we find nothing askew, we tell our client (you do, right?). However, in all investigative processes we learn that there are different perspectives from the law enforcement perspective. Their job is ... law enforcement. If they have reason to believe a crime has been committed, that may lead to investigatory measures to determine reasonable suspicion. That is a perspective that many investigators in the private sector do not have. That continues through probable cause and filing of charges. Each person along that path has a perspective -- from the first responding law enforcement officer to the investigator, then to the prosecuting attorney and presiding judge. Ultimately the perspective of the jury may be the final outcome. Our initial concern are that of the investigative process. Without seeing the perspective, accurately or otherwise, of those involved in the official investigation, you simply assist the client with the prosecutor's office or judicial process. Think outside the box, enhance all of your senses, and use all of your education, training and skills. Do not limit your investigation to a preconceived conclusion or goal. If you feel you have found the facts to prove the preponderance of your client's case, that is not enough. It is not enough for law enforcement to reach probable cause, that is making an arrest and charge - hoping for a conviction.
In the private sector we have the advantage of being able to sit back and see the investigative process and evidence from a unique perspective. We are not first responders, under pressure or working a caseload that causes us to lose focus. However, all investigators - public, private, business, etc., all have a responsibility to conduct AND complete the investigative process. All investigators are fact finders and seekers of the truth. We do not decide the truth, that is up to another, but we do intend for our facts to be seen in the same truth by others as we see for ourselves.
Karen S. Beers, BSW, CCDI, earned her Bachelor's in Social Work from Colorado State University (Magna Cum Laude). She is a Colorado Licensed Private Investigator (#PI-502) and also a Certified Criminal Defense Investigator (CCDI) and certified in Medicolegal Death Investigations. Her background, education and experience with victim advocacy and counseling are valuable assets in working with families and victims of traumatic events.
As a death investigator Karen was involved in the investigations of all manners of deaths and incidents, training under three Forensic Pathologists. From 2004-2006 she investigated and assisted with numerous death cases and scenes, and assisted with forensic autopsies.
Following graduation from Colorado State University was an extensive internship at a youth counseling and rehabilitation facility. She is also a member of the Criminal Defense Investigations Training Council. Karen has been professionally published with 'The Basics of an Autopsy Report' (PI Magazine, Dec 2011) and 'Understanding Suicide and its Prevention – Equivocal Death Investigations' (PursuitMag.com, Dec 2011), ‘False Confessions and Accusations’ (PursuitMag.com, Feb 2012). With Dean she co-developed 'Death Investigation for Private Investigators', an online continuing education course for www.PIEducation.com.
Karen is a member of the Criminal Defense Investigation Training Council and the National Defender Investigator Association.
Karen enjoys also using her creative mind with painting, drawing and writing - including 'Letters from Yesteryear' at www.LettersFromYesteryear.com. They have two daughters, a granddaughter and identical twin grandsons.