Trombetta-Youngblood and the Problem of Bad Faith

As we noted last week, a court may dismiss your criminal case if the government destroyed or failed to preserve evidence that was potentially favorable to your defense.

If you make that argument, however, the court will engage in a two-step analysis, the first step of which will ask how favorable or exculpatory the lost evidence was (or could have been).

If the evidence had exculpatory value that was obvious or apparent at the time it was destroyed, and there’s no other way for you to obtain comparable evidence by reasonably available means, then you win because it’s an automatic due-process violation for the government not to preserve it. California v. Trombetta (1984) 467 U.S. 479, 488-90 (holding, however, that the government did not need, as a matter of course, to preserve all breath samples underlying its breath tests in drunken-driving cases).

But if the evidence was only potentially useful to your defense, then you must show bad faith by the government in destroying or failing to preserve it. Arizona v. Youngblood (1988) 488 U.S. 51, 58. See also Illinois v. Fisher (2004) 540 U.S. 544, 548-49. Accord City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (2002) 29 Cal. 4th 1, 8.

These motions to dismiss for due-process violations are commonly referred to as Trombetta-Youngblood motions.

Often, the problem is in proving bad faith, as the Youngblood case itself illustrates. In 1985, Larry Youngblood was convicted of kidnapping and child molestation. Unquestionably, a ten-year-old boy had been abducted and molested by a middle-aged man. The victim, who described the man as having a disfigured right eye, was taken to a hospital, where semen samples were collected from his body and clothing. Nine days later, the boy picked out Youngblood, who had a bad left eye, from a photographic lineup, and later at trial, he identified him again in court. In the meantime, the government failed to properly test the samples before they had degraded, and it failed to properly store the clothing so it could be tested at all.

Although Youngblood maintained his innocence at trial, the jury convicted him largely on the basis of the victim’s identification. His state conviction was reversed on appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that reversal in the opinion that bears his name. In the end, he couldn’t show bad faith, just negligence.

Then in 2000, at the request of his lawyers, the police retested the degraded evidence using new DNA technology. The results cleared him. Furthermore, they matched the profile of another man who was already in prison for two sex assaults against children, and that man ended up pleading to the crime. And he had a bad right eye. Youngblood, for his part, died in 2007, having never obtained redress for the years he spent being called a child molester.

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