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- Doorbell cameras are changing the legal profession as their numbers surge, lawyers say.
- Private eyes and process servers also note a proliferation of the devices in cities and suburbs.
- They capture crooks, give alibis to the innocent, and catch cheating spouses in the act.
Manhattan divorce lawyer Suzanne Kimberly Bracker was not happy the other day, after a doorbell camera caught her client kissing the nanny right on the doorstep of his marital home.
“It was perfectly innocent!” Bracker insisted of the peck on the lips, footage of which is now forever preserved as part of the couple’s divorce record.
On the same day, her process server was having no luck serving a divorce summons on a wife in Homestead, Florida.
“They know she’s home, but she has a doorbell camera and never opens the door,” Bracker told Insider recently. “Damn doorbell cameras!”
The easily-installed cameras are commonplace in America’s cities and suburbs, say the lawyers, private eyes, and process servers now using the devices well beyond their already-documented ability to catch burglars, prowlers and porch pirates.
Prices are at all-time lows — Amazon recently offered the popular battery-powered Blink Video Doorbell for only $34.99 — so many more of the devices will soon be migrating out from under Christmas trees and onto to front doors.
As is also true for law enforcement, doorbell camera evidence can cut both ways for lawyers, exonerating or incriminating clients.
A doorbell camera recently swung a custody case Bracker’s way by catching a client’s kids letting themselves in and out of the house of the opposing spouse, who had claimed to be a “stay-at-home” parent but was never actually home.
While judges will frown on one spouse “spying” on the other with indoor cameras, “judges expect that you have a doorbell camera,” said Bracker, who has practiced family law in New York City for 35 years.
“And clients are all wising up. They all want that footage, especially in family law litigation,” she said. “They want to see if their best friend is coming to visit their spouse during the day.”
With the explosion in Ring, Blink, Nest and other systems, “there are cameras in places that never had them before,” said Herman Weisman, a private investigator whose company, Sage Intelligence Group, is based in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Miami.
“Accident reconstruction depends on doorbell video cameras. And I’ve used them for bigger cases — homicides, disappearances,” the former NYPD detective said.
Acquiring footage from homeowners is typically easier than from building superintendents or business owners, he said. “A lot of times homeowners are happy to help out private investigators.”
For another recent job, a hotel let Weisman set up a series Nest cameras so he could monitor an adjacent location. Otherwise, “I would have needed several human beings to sit there,” he said.
Doorbell cameras provide footage that has high resolution and great depth of field while supplying a reliable timestamp, performing far better than traditional security cameras, he said.
On the flip side, they can also make surveillance more difficult.
“If you’re doing a stake out on somebody that’s evading, they can certainly monitor their door without coming outside or even being home,” he said.
Doorbell camera footage can make or break personal injury or workman’s comp cases, notes commercial litigator Steven Frankel, of the Manhattan and Boca Raton, Florida, firm Meltzer Lippe.
Frankel once used Ring doorbell footage to prove that a Long Island breach-of-contract defendant was not, as he’d been claiming, too sick to be deposed or testify at trial.
“We saw that he had the doorbell, and we demanded his recordings for the past 30 days,” he said. The judge agreed, and the footage showed “he was going in and out, and he was jogging occasionally.”
No matter their specialty — family law, criminal law, corporate law, and beyond — lawyers know they must move quickly to secure doorbell camera footage. Many personal-use cameras are cloud based, and images are stored for only 30 days.
“If you think the other side is going to have relevant evidence on their doorbell, you’ve got to demand those records right away,” Frankel said, or demand that they be preserved.
He also agreed that doorbell cameras make it harder for process servers to hand-deliver important legal documents.
“Somebody can answer their Ring doorbell and be 1,000 miles away,” and just speak remotely through the camera’s speaker, Frankel said.
“The process server can’t know if the person ‘answering’ the doorbell is actually there,” he said.
“What if the person uses the doorbell to say, ‘I’m on vacation in Hawaii?'” Maybe they are, or maybe they are actually still at home, hiding from your server, Frankel said.
But doorbell cameras don’t impress Irving Botwinick, whose New York-based process serving agency, Serving by Irving, has specialized in “impossible” cases coast-to-coast and overseas for 40 years.
Doorbell cameras are just a slightly more complicated front door peep-hole, said Botwinick, who for decades has sent his process servers to crash weddings, show up at airports, or toss legal papers into open limousine windows.
“Sometimes we’ll send a young lady with some flowers or balloons,” to a target’s workplace, he said.
“The secretaries all fall for it. They love it. Somebody walks in with balloons and candy or whatever. And we sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ or if it’s not the birthday, we sing something to do with serving — ‘It Had To Be You.’
“We sing a song, a little song,” Botwinick said. “And then we serve them.”