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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Clarification for Authentication of Audio Recordings

The following article was written to help the legal community better understand the audio clarification process. The descriptions it includes will also help a lay person better understand the value of audio clarification.

All digital and analogue recordings have a noise floor. The term “noise floor” originated when manufacturers of analogue audio recorders referred to the extraneous noise that their machines created in addition to the desired recorded audio signals.

Often, a background noise constitutes most of the audio recording and covers a portion of speech that needs to be audible in order to determine a series of events pertinent to the case. Noises like the humming of a fan, air conditioning, heating systems, wind, and other unwanted sounds contribute to the audio recording noise floor. These noises can often be removed by the audio forensic expert (who is also known as the examiner) to help determine facts about the series of recorded events.

The extraneous sounds of background noise and noise floor can consist of a heating or air conditioning fan running, refrigerator motor, window fan, clock, fluorescent lighting, wind, rain, the running engine of a car, and even radio or television. All these sounds contribute to the background noise and noise floor of a recording and aid the forensic examiner in authenticating a recording. However, although these sounds can authenticate the environment of an alleged crime, this background noise can interfere with the forensic examination. It is appropriate and part of the forensic examiners job to remove these background sounds in order to authenticate or clarify an exhibit of audio recorded evidence.

Some of the recordings experts are asked to authenticate are confession recordings created by law enforcement agencies. Defendants exclaim, “That is not what I said, they edited it” or “There is more I said that has been edited out of the recording”. Due process entitles both parties in litigation to examine any evidence presented in their case. However, original recordings are not always available for examination. How do you as a law enforcement official feel about the absence of original recordings?

I have worked on cases where missing “original evidence” was considered spoliation of evidence. Personally, I believe that the circumstances of each case should be considered by the forensic examiner before any decision has been made by either party.

If there are noticeable questionable characteristics that the forensic examiner observes regarding the audio evidence, then the expert must notify the officials in charge of the findings during the preliminary examination phase of the forensic investigation. Original recordings are required for litigation cases. If they are not produced, a motion to suppress the evidence should be filed.