Why Laser Scan Point Cloud Data Density Matters in the Courtroom

Creating scientifically accurate visualizations that minimize cognitive bias requires starting with high-quality data.

When a case goes to a jury trial, both the prosecution and the defense seek to tell the most compelling story. The jury, however, needs to uncover the truth. The more they can put themselves into the scene and understand the evidence and different witness perspectives, the better equipped they are to determine the facts of the case so justice is served.

Technology plays a pivotal role in giving juries the tools they need to make the right decisions.   As video, audio, and other digital media are increasingly used as storytelling tools, clean, high-density point clouds captured with leading-edge laser scanners become crucial in providing scientifically accurate visualizations that minimize cognitive bias.

More Detail for Crime and Crash Scene Analysis

Laser scanners record both geometric information as well as fine textures, surface variations, and even colors. This comprehensive data capture provides a holistic understanding of a scanned scene, revealing vital information that may have been easily overlooked using traditional methods. A registration report can also accompany the point cloud data to aid in court admissibility by identifying the registration’s accuracy, the degree of scan overlap, and compliance with on-scene best practices.

For example, when a crash occurred in Hawaii, a laser scanning team (with only one day of training) performed 13 scans with the Leica RTC360 3D laser scanner in 50 minutes. Many scans were positioned over 65 feet apart from one another while still capturing the necessary high-level detail.

Despite a lack of manmade objects, harsh lighting conditions, and black roadways—all of which typically create challenges for successful laser scanning and data registration—the team captured near-photorealistic data of the entire scene.

William Henningsen, Forensic Manager and Director for the Omaha Police Department’s Forensic Investigations Unit and a consultant with Collision & Crime Forensic Solutions, trained and led the team. “Even with low radius objects like vegetation, I can make out individual fronds of grass in the point cloud,” he says. “This has all kinds of implications for the visualization of pavement marks in the crime scene world. It helps with reconstructions without having to add trajectory rods, additional markings, annotations, or size adjustments for an object I’m trying to map. That all contributes to the speed, completeness, and accuracy of the data that is being represented.”

More Detail for Immersive 3D Scene Reconstructions

High-density point clouds are essential for creating operable 3D visualizations that accurately represent real-world environments. The high density of these points ensures that intricate details, such as fine textures, complex geometries, and subtle variations in surfaces, are accurately captured. This level of detail is crucial for creating immersive and realistic 3D visualizations that enable users to navigate and interact with the virtual environment seamlessly.

In public safety, creating that immersive environment is critical for investigators and juries to explore an incident from every angle, thus helping to ensure fair and comprehensive assessments of complex situations.

For example, in a complex use-of-force case, attorney Heather Howard was concerned that a potentially misleading surveillance video would lead to the conviction of the officer on trial for a fatal shooting. Recognizing that the video did not accurately represent events from the officer’s perspective, Howard employed Visual Law to provide a more comprehensive view.

The team created a 3D animation of the crime scene using laser scans from the Leica RTC360. This allowed the jury to virtually navigate the environment, replay events at various speeds, and even view the scene from the law enforcement officer’s perspective. They could see how close to the officer the vehicle was (less than 3 feet) and observe that the officer was unable to see which way the tires were pointing when the vehicle accelerated toward him. The jury acquitted the officer of all charges after an unusually short amount of time deliberating.

Mark Johnson, CEO of Visual Law, said, “We’re moving into new technologies that use real-time visualization of point clouds, and the quality of those visualizations is highly reliant upon the density of the cloud that is created by the scanner. The right scanner makes a night-and-day difference in terms of the level of density and the speed with which we get it.”

On-Demand: How to apply the power of point cloud data in the courtroom

Go behind the scenes on a complex use-of-force case with Heather Howard, Mark Johnson, and the jury consultant, Dr. Jeffrey Frederick.

A Word About Data Security

Ensuring that the data from a laser scanner will be admissible in court is a necessity. Leica Geosystems has taken measures to provide “verifiable accuracy” in their scanners, enabling them to be admitted as scientific evidence rather than merely demonstrative. Leica has also developed the Data Security Feature, which addresses the critical need to authenticate and verify the captured data while meeting the highest data security standards. This feature digitally signs the data in the field and generates a unique hash value for each file, ensuring traceability and authentication during data import. This helps prove that the data presented in court is indeed the same data that was initially captured.

Laser scanners equipped with top-tier technology for high-density scanning capture precise geometric information, enabling investigators to gain a holistic understanding of crime scenes and provide that same understanding to juries. Combined with the integration of data security, public safety professionals can prove the authenticity of their data for admissibility in court, leading to an improved justice system for all.

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