The government’s destruction of evidence might violate an accused’s rights if it deprives him of a defense that would have been available to him had the evidence not been destroyed.
The Defendant was convicted of trafficking over 200 grams of cocaine in violation of the statute. However, the Defendant suspected that the police might have diluted the cocaine that they seized in order to increase its weight and subject the Defendant to a higher penalty. When the defendant appealed his conviction, his counsel notified the prosecutor of his plan to conduct an independent analysis of the cocaine that was seized and demanded the evidence be preserved for that purpose. Despite his demand, the evidence was destroyed. Because it was destroyed, the Defendant moved to dismiss the indictment or, in the alternative, to suppress the evidence of the cocaine’s weight.
Does the government’s destruction of evidence, after having received a specific request to preserve it, deprive the defendant of a defense he might have had?
In determining whether an accused’s rights were violated by the destruction of evidence, the court must conduct a balance test. First, the defendant must demonstrate that the lost or destroyed evidence was potentially exculpatory. If yes, then the second step is for the court to “weigh the culpability of the Commonwealth, the materiality of the evidence, and the potential prejudice to the defendant.” In this case, because the Defendant made a specific request for the evidence that no longer exists, he need only show that if he had access to the evidence it “might have” affected the jury’s verdict. Here, there was a showing that the evidence “might have” been significant because the Defendant hoped to defend against the trafficking charge by showing that he had not possessed 200 grams of cocaine. Thus, the balance tips in the favor of the Defendant, and he should be charged with the lesser crime.