As most people with a basic understanding of the criminal justice system understand, the state always has the burden of proof in a criminal case. That means the state is obligated to prove, with evidence, that the defendant committed the crime with which he/she is charged. A person is always considered innocent until the state meets that burden. Of course, if the state never produces sufficient, convincing evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant remains innocent. Perhaps it is human nature for people to assume someone is guilty based on rushed and poorly researched media articles or even just an arrest on serious charges, but that is not how the system is supposed to work. Evidence controls.
In a recent possession of marijuana case near Jacksonville, Florida, the state failed to preserve and produce evidence of the defendant’s guilt, and the marijuana charge was thrown out. This revolved around an incident that took place while a local station was filming a reality show about police officers. The local station had an agreement that allowed them to ride with the police to film the show.
The police officers indicated they saw the defendant smoking a marijuana cigarette, detained him and found more marijuana in his picket. The suspect claimed he was just smoking a cigar with tobacco and argued that the video would support his claim. The criminal defense lawyer attempted to obtain the footage of the encounter from the TV station, but they refused to provide it unless the defendant signed a waiver allowing them to show the incident on TV. He refused, and the station ultimately destroyed the video.
The police never made an attempt to recover the video despite their relationship with the TV station.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to dismiss since this evidence of the incident was destroyed. The court agreed finding that the police knew the video had material information on it, they made no attempt to obtain it, the defendant tried to get it and was denied through no fault of his own and the evidence was destroyed with potentially exculpatory evidence on it.
The court found that the defendant’s due process rights were violated. The police had an obligation to attempt to preserve what may have been critical evidence that could have been exculpatory for the defendant. They failed to do so and the video was destroyed, which prevented the defendant from properly defending his case. It would have been different if the defendant was responsible for the destruction of the video, but he attempted to retrieve it, and it was up to the police to preserve it.