The Constitution requires that criminal defendants be provided with a fair trial, not merely a “good faith” try at a fair trial. Respondent here, by what may have been nothing more than police ineptitude, was denied the opportunity to present a full defense. That ineptitude, however, deprived respondent of his guaranteed right to due process of law.
Those, of course, are the (somewhat) famous opening lines to Justice Blackmun‘s dissent in Arizona v. Youngblood, which held that in order to affect due process of law, law enforcement’s actions in destroying potentially exculpatory evidence must be caused by some “bad faith”. The Court, of course, never explains “bad faith”, which results in a race to the bottom to designate all police misconduct as “incompetence” and “inadvertence”, thereby circumventing the Fourteenth Amendment.
Consider, for your entertainment, the very recent case of Martin v. The State of (Where Else?) Texas. In Martin, the defendant was pulled over by Deputy
Fife Jennings for failing to signal a left turn. Upon approaching the vehicle, the Deputy smelled “marihuana” and then observed a furtive gesture which led to a patdown, which led to the Deputy feel something like a razor blade (wait for it) which led to the discovery of marihuana methamphetamine (don’t even ask). Martin, within two weeks of his arrest, sent a subpoena to the police department, asking them preserve the video of the dashboard camera. A year later, at the suppression hearing, there obviously was no video, or I wouldn’t be writing this post. Here’s a summary of the police procedure and operation of the dashcam:
The dashcam is automatically activated when an officer turns on his emergency lights. Department policy states that all video must automatically be saved for thirty days. Jennings could not say whether his machine was operating that night, but he would have noted either at the beginning or end of the shift if the device had not been functional. Jennings stated that the only way to know for sure if the video had been taken would have been if he had preserved the video.
And why did no one know if there was video and why did Jennings not preserve it to find out if the incident had been videotaped? I’ll let him tell you:
Q: And why was it not preserved?
A: Since I didn’t put it in my report it wasn’t preserved because I didn’t believe it had any type of evidential value.
Q: But, apparently, your opinion is . . . that if you feel that it doesn’t have evidentiary value, you don’t have to turn it in or you don’t have to preserve it, or whatever, correct?
A: Yes, sir, that was my understanding at the time.
Q: So it’s very possible that . . . you just decided in your mind that it didn’t have any evidential value, that . . . you didn’t preserve the video?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And the only way to know if there was a video that properly recorded the events of that evening would be if you had preserved that video, correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Is your head spinning? It should be. He didn’t know what was on the video, yet determined that there was no evidentiary value, so he destroyed the tape and thus the only method of determining if it did, indeed, have evidentiary value. All in violation of department policy.
As for that subpoena? Well, Jennings says he never received it, even though it was served at his department and by golly we damn well take his word for it:
The district court could have reasonably inferred from this testimony that there is a department policy giving officers discretion to determine whether the tapes have evidentiary value and that Jennings did not violate that procedure by determining that the videotape in this case did not.
Finally, Martin argues that bad faith can be inferred from the failure of the department to comply with either the subpoenas that were issued or the letter that Martin wrote requesting preservation of the evidence. Regarding the letter, the district court would not have abused its discretion in crediting Jennings’s testimony that he had not seen it prior to the suppression hearing[...]
Well, I’m glad that we have so much faith in an incompetent, bungling, apparently clairvoyant police department. Because, really, it would be too much to ask of Deputy Fife to just possibly walk the videotape over to the evidence room. Poor guy has his hands full deciding whether something smells like pot or feels like a razor blade when it’s in fact meth. We shouldn’t tax him much more.
Now, of course, that was in Texas and not in Connecticut, which roundly rejected Youngblood‘s “bad faith” rule in State v. Morales. In Connecticut, you can get a jury instruction telling the jury to draw an adverse inference from the police’s failure to preserve potentially useful evidence:
Fairness dictates that when a person’s liberty is at stake, the sole fact of whether the police or another state official acted in good or bad faith in failing to preserve evidence cannot be determinative of whether the criminal defendant has received due process of law. Rather, our constitution imposes certain obligations on the state to ensure that the criminal trial is “a search for truth, not an adversary game.” United States v. Perry, 471 F.2d 1057, 1063 (D.C. Cir. 1972); State v. Wright, 87 Wash. 2d 783, 786, 557 P.2d 1 (1976).
That’s authored by Justice Berdon, with whom I want to have babies.
Here’s an alternate image to the one above: