• By: Allen Brown

The Consequences of Inaccurate Transcription in the Legal and Law Enforcement Industries

Law enforcement and legal processes generate a considerable amount of audio and video recordings, especially with the widespread application of new technologies. Body cam footage, suspect interviews, depositions, court hearings — all of them are now saved as one digital format or another for ease of access. However, ease of access doesn’t automatically translate to ease of use. These audio and video recordings can go on for hours, making reviews massive time sinks for many legal businesses or law enforcement agencies. Imagine having to sit through an hour of wiretap recording just to take note of one brief exchange.

The answer to this problem is transcription — creating a written audio or video recording representation. This makes it easier for law enforcement and legal professionals to sift through hours upon hours of footage, making their jobs easier and allowing them to focus on more important matters.

However, not all transcriptions are created equal, and having incorrect transcriptions can lead to severe consequences in the American criminal justice and legal system. Here are some of the most egregious examples of the consequences of incorrect transcriptions.

Distortion of evidence

Human communication is a nuanced process. We depend on facial expressions, tone of voice, and many other cues to identify meaning and context. Transcription, however necessary, takes those out of the equation. This makes accuracy imperative, and this also magnifies any errors made. Incorrect transcription can mislead the understanding of statements, confessions, interviews, and other recordings. These errors can affect judges’ and jury members’ decisions, potentially impacting the final outcome.

Nullification of evidence

Evidence handling should follow the strict guidelines of the chain of custody. Any procedural issues can lead to crucial evidence getting thrown out. This includes incorrect transcripts. Once errors are identified, the validity can be questioned, potentially undermining their importance in the case. Civil and criminal defense lawyers can and will have such incorrect evidence thrown out of the case. Mistakes can include things as simple as incorrectly labeling a speaker, misspelling the name, or taking down the wrong license plate or driver’s license number.

It costs time and resources to fix

It’s one thing if transcripts are discovered to be incorrect before or during the legal process. But to find out about the errors after the fact can be more problematic. This can delay any ongoing court process, require reopening cases and resubmitting evidence, and constitute more expenses for defendants, plaintiffs, and the U.S. Courts.

How heavy can the consequences of transcription errors be?

Here are two very different cases to emphasize the importance of accuracy in legal and law enforcement transcripts.

$300,000 and one year in prison — all because of a wrong label

Carlos Ortega, a 66-year-old semi-retired pilot in Bogota who owned a small aviation business, was arrested in 2011 by U.S. agents on drug trafficking charges. He was imprisoned for the next five months and extradited to the United States for formal court hearings. Family and friends flew back and forth from Colombia to fight the charges in court, and after one year, Ortega was released from prison.

Unfortunately, he was extradited in the first place because of a transcription error. Ortega’s side hired a private investigator to exonerate him, and the P.I. found the wiretap recording that sealed his fate. Carlos Ortega was featured in the recording but did not discuss criminal intent. Instead, another Carlos was featured on the tape, and that person was involved in criminal activity. The prosecutors mistook Carlos Ortega, the innocent pilot, for Carlos, the drug trafficker, because the transcript mislabeled the speakers.

“An eight-year-old child could have told you that our voices were completely different,” Mr Ortega said about the recording.

To make matters worse, the lead prosecutor for the case found out about the mistake early and yet allegedly directed the agents to bury the evidence. The prosecutor also continued to pressure Mr. Ortega to plead guilty. When he didn’t cave, they dropped all charges after a year, allowing him to go home.

All this came too late for Mr. Ortega, who had by that time lost his business and was deep in debt. He and his family spent nearly $300,000 in legal and travel expenses. He sued for reparations, but U.S. Courts threw his case out, which held that the U.S. had “sovereign immunity” and that the prosecutor enjoyed similar protection. To this day, Carlos Ortega has not received any compensation or reparation for this life-altering mistake. And all because of a simple transcription error.

36 years? Let’s make that 36 months

Cody DeShields was arrested and sentenced for residential burglary on June 2, 2011. The case went without a hitch for the prosecutors — all evidence was in line, the defense had no reasonable alibi, and it was supposedly a slam-dunk case. His crimes were grave enough to land him 36 years in prison.

But three years and some months later, DeShields was again involved in a crime. This time, it was aggravated residential burglary, two counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of first-degree battery, engaging in violent criminal group activity, and two counts of property theft. The police arrested him and two other accomplices and checked their records. It’s a veritable laundry list of crimes — and some would be surprised that he got out of prison three years into a nearly four-decade sentence.

That’s because instead of his sentencing paperwork stating 36 years, it said 36 months. No one in the correctional facility questioned the sentence. No one in the prosecutors’ office bothered to recheck the paperwork to see if everything was in order. No one noticed that a violent criminal had gone free decades before he was supposed to be until he got arrested again.

Paul Whitehorn, the victim of the crime, said, “That’s just great,” after learning about the mistake.

So here are two examples of many transcription issues that have affected the criminal justice system. Errors can go beyond simply imprisoning an innocent man or freeing a guilty one. Stenographers have had issues transcribing African-American (or Black) English, leading to astoundingly incorrect reflection of statements, with errors often recording the exact opposite of what was said. This carries the undercurrents of racism, which is an exceptionally touchy subject in today’s political climate.

How can professional transcription help with these issues?

Transcription service providers can be the answer to many of the issues outlined above. Here are the ways how:

Help with the agency’s workflow

Transcription doesn’t have to be the responsibility of the assigned police officer or the first-year law associate. Law offices and law enforcement agencies also don’t need to put up their own transcription department, which can require a lot of resources to establish and maintain. They can outsource the work instead of worrying about hiring, vetting, and training transcriptionists.

Aside from the benefits of doing the actual work, transcripts can make life easier for officers and lawyers. Reviewing and studying recordings can take a lot of time. Complete and accurate transcripts can reduce that time spent by offering digitally searchable versions of all files.

Efficiency and accuracy

Transcribers specializing in law enforcement and legal recordings are often well-versed in the industry’s jargon. This dramatically reduces errors when creating police transcripts, forensic evidence dictations, witness statements, and other video and audio recordings. They are also used to their work, meaning they can transcribe faster than regular transcriptionists, increasing efficiency.

Improves case organization

A well-formatted, well-organized digital transcription archive can be an immense tool for any agency or organization. Repositories can be arranged by case files or names, and, again, all are digitally searchable. This can make research easier, cutting down on hours and allowing maximum efficiency for all departments.

AI or human transcription?

The whole point of this discussion is accuracy. In choosing human vs. AI transcription, one is the clear winner.

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all have free transcription software, usually bundled with their primary products. Studies conducted in 2021 showed that the big three scored less than 85% in accuracy.

Amazon: 81.58%

Microsoft: 83.49%

Google: 84.14%.

Problems with AI transcription are numerous. Thick accents, uncommon word usage, nuanced context, technical jargon, and speed of speech can negatively affect the results. Furthermore, figures of speech, idioms, sarcasm, or humor can be lost or misconstrued.

Most human transcription providers offer accuracy rates in the high 90s, with some going as far as 99%. This can help avoid the above mentioned issues while presenting a cost- and time-saving alternative to in-house transcription.


Transcription services can greatly benefit law enforcement agencies and legal organizations. Using them can lead to far fewer transcription errors, potentially avoiding impacting the course of the law. The only consideration is finding an affordable, accurate, and secure provider that fits your resources and requirements.

Image Credit: Supplied