Burlington County, NJ Law Blog

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Conviction Vacated Because of Police Destruction of Video

What happens when a law enforcement officer testifies about evidence without revealing that it no longer exists?

When a jury learns that a defendant was caught on video, a conviction seems inevitable. But not when a prosecution witness testifies about the video without mentioning that it was destroyed. A New Jersey man convicted of cocaine possession and sentenced to five years in jail is now a free man because of mistaken police testimony and the police's failure to preserve recorded evidence. 

The defendant, who had more than twenty different aliases, was suspected of being a drug dealer and was arrested in 2010, when detectives said they saw him selling drugs. At the police station, the suspect protested his innocence. The police claimed they found nine bags of cocaine in his boot.

Detective's Testimony Relies on Missing Video Evidence

In grand jury testimony before the trial, a police detective testified that the discovery of the cocaine was captured on camera, as part of the police department's standard procedures.

When the case went to trial, however, the detective admitted to the court that the tape had been destroyed prior to his grand jury testimony. At the time he described the video recording to the grand jury, the tape was gone.

The defendant's counsel seized upon the admission, which suggested that the defendant's indictment was based on non-existent evidence. But the trial judge denied a defense motion to have the indictment dismissed. Though the defendant was acquitted of most of the charges against him, he was convicted on the charge of possessing the nine packets of cocaine.

Court Vacates Indictment Based on False Representations to the Grand Jury

Reviewing the case, an appellate court held that the trial court erred. By describing the video recording to the grand jury, the detective created the false impression that the police had strong evidence against the defendant. Yet the evidence did not exist. While the detective's testimony may not have been intentionally deceptive, it was nonetheless untrue, and it misled the grand jury. And so, the appellate court vacated the indictment, setting the prisoner free.

Errors in Preserving Evidence Can Wreck a Prosecutor's Strongest Case

While video recordings may seem difficult to overcome, simple police and prosecutorial errors in preserving them can sometimes make them inadmissible. Destruction or spoliation of evidence by the police can undermine a seemingly open and shut case. If you believe you are in danger of being wrongly indicted or convicted, a skilled defense counsel may be able to help you block untruthful law enforcement testimony, whether before a grand jury or at trial.

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