Geographic Evidence Admissible in Litigation

Geographic intelligence, including images produced through earth observation satellite technology, are being used effectively in litigation. To date, geographic intelligence and satellite images have been admitted into evidence in a few cases, but without extensive discussion of the steps taken to achieve that end. In United States v. Reserve Mining Co., 380 F.Supp. 11(D.Minn. 1974), satellite images were entered into evidence to show the dispersion of taconite tailings by a mining company. In Gasser v. United States, 14 Cl.Ct.476(1988), the court held that the flooding had increased as shown in satellite imagery evidence even though it had rejected the expert’s testimony in favor of that same evidence.

Two potential avenues for admitting geographic intelligence are as demonstrative evidence under Rule 1006 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, or as scientific evidence under Rule 702 and 703.

Demonstrative Geographic Intelligence Evidence
An argument can be made that a geographic intelligence exhibit is essentially “a chart, summary, or calculation” and thus admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 1006, which provides that “[t]he contents or voluminous writings, recordings, or photographs which cannot conveniently be examined in court may be presented in the form of a chart, summary, or calculation.” See generally, Hodge, “Satellite Data and Environmental Law: Technology Ripe for Litigation Application,” 14 Pace Envtl.L.Rev.691, 718(1997) (hereinafter “Hodge”). Products currently available to lawyers can generate maps, reports, and three-dimensional images from geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing tools. They use complex and voluminous data to present an illustrative and scientifically accurate chart for the court. Courts have long held that illustrative charts may be used to summarize complex computations in order to make the evidence “more enlightening to the jury.” McDaniel v. United States, 343 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 382 U.S. 826 (1965). For example, graphic computer presentations have been found to be “more akin to a chart or diagram than a scientific device. Whether a diagram is hand draw or mechanically drawn by means of a computer is of no importance.” People v. McHugh, 124 Mis.2d 559, 560, 476 N.Y.S.2d 721, 722 (1984). The McHugh court, the first to admit a graphic computer presentation at a criminal trial, expressly recognized (476 N.Y.S.2d at 722-23) that:

"[c]omputers are simply mechanical tools … When the results are useful, they should be accepted, when confusing, they should be rejected. What is most important is that the presentation be relevant… that it fairly and accurately reflect the oral testimony offered and that it be an aid to the jury’s understanding of the issue."

The same guiding principles apply to geographic intelligence figures and remotely sensed imagery when introduced as demonstrative evidence under Rule 1006.