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Oops! There goes the evidence!

Report: Pittsburgh police destroyed drugs early

PA State Wire
Published: Dec 22, 2010

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Authorities say drugs being held as evidence by Pittsburgh police were prematurely destroyed, leading to charges being dropped in one case and potentially affecting a federal prosecution.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that about 14,000 bags of heroin worth $107,000 were destroyed after county prosecutors opted not to pursue state charges. But that's because federal prosecutors had taken up the case.

In another instance, the paper reports that drugs seized in a 2005 arrest were destroyed before the case went to trial. Allegheny County prosecutors dropped the charges last week after discovering the evidence was gone.

County prosecutors say the cases have prompted new policies to avoid future mistakes. Assistant police Chief Regina McDonald says the problem is being addressed.

Courts hold that a prosecutor's duty under Brady v. Maryland to disclose exculpatory evidence includes an obligation to preserve such evidence from loss or destruction. Otherwise, the disclosure duty would be an empty formality which could be easily circumvented by suppression of evidence by means of destruction rather than mere failure to reveal. Accordingly, a prosecutor's failure to preserve exculpatory evidence, even though the result of inadvertence, may constitute a violation of due process. A prosecutor's deliberate destruction of exculpatory evidence will more likely result in reversal. Some common examples of unpreserved evidence include destroyed handwritten notes of interviews with witnesses, erased videotapes relevant to the crime, discarded breathalyzer test samples used in intoxicated driving cases, lost blood, sperm, hair, or urine samples, clothing worn by the defendant, components and related chemicals of drug manufacturing labs, and unretained items of evidence found at the crime scene.

Many of the factors used to determine whether lost or destroyed evidence reaches a constitutional violation are also used in cases of suppressed evidence. These factors include whether the loss was deliberate, the degree of governmental negligence or bad faith, the potential use of the evidence by the defendant, whether the evidence relates directly to guilt or is useful only for impeachment, the circumstances surrounding the loss or destruction, and the strength of the government's case.

The intentional destruction of evidence is a fact that should be explored in any criminal case where such evidence exists. Most cases do not involve such intentional abuses by the police, however, a small number do appear. Contact an experienced attorney to review the evidence and facts in your case. Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC; toll free at (717) 268-4287 or email us at