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Destruction of Evidence

The other big case out of the Supreme Court last week was State v. GeeslinGeeslin had been stopped for a DUI, and the stop and arrest had been videotaped by the officer.  Subsequently, it turned out that the officer had accidentally taped over the portion leading up to the stop.  The defendant argued that the destruction of the evidence entitled him to a dismissal of the charges.  The trial court agreed, but the court of appeals reversed.

I'd detailed the law on this before, when the appellate decision in Geeslin was handed down, and again when the case was argued before the Supreme Court.  In a nutshell, the 3rd District had held that the defendant was required to show that the evidence was "materially exculpatory" in order to get the case dismissed, which he could've shown if the evidence had been destroyed after he'd asked that it be preserved, but in this case it had been destroyed before any motion to preserve had been filed.

There are a number of problems with that analysis, as I detailed earlier.  For the most part, the Supreme Court ignores them.  The case is pretty aptly summed up by the syllabus: 

Unless a defendant can show that the state acted in bad faith, the state's failure to preserve potentially useful evidence does not violate a defendant's due process rights.

Here, the trial court found that the destruction was accidental, ergo, there was no bad faith.  The End.

Geeslin does raise some questions, though.  First, when I'd discussed the Supreme Court arguments, I'd mentioned a point Justice Pfeiffer had brought out:  since the destroyed portion of the tape solely concerned the basis for the stop (whether the defendant's car had gone across the marked lines), it wasn't exculpatory -- it went to the issue of suppression, not guilt or innocence.  That's what the Court concludes, as a matter of fact, but instead of stopping at that point, it goes on with the apparent assumption that the evidence is "potentially useful."  In short, there is a due process concern with the destruction of evidence that merely goes to suppression issues.

Of greater question is the continued vitality of the rule developed by most of the courts of appeal, which determine bad faith on the basis of when the evidence was destroyed:  before or after the defendant requested it.  The Court acknowledges that the evidence was destroyed before the defendant would have had a chance to request it (within 24 hours after the arrest), and thus says it "need not address" the issue of the defendant's failure to request that the evidence be preserved.  It notes with approval, though, the US Supreme Court's language that "even in the absence of a specific request, the prosecution has a constitutional duty to turn over exculpatory evidence that would raise a reasonable doubt about the defendant's guilt." 

I certainly don't think that Geeslin means a request for preservation of the evidence becomes insignificant; if the evidence is destroyed after you've requested it be preserved, that goes a long, long way toward proving bad faith.  What it does suggest, though, is that the flip side of that argument isn't valid:  just because the evidence was destroyed before you requested it doesn't mean there wasn't bad faith.

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