Patterson v. Florida – Due Process Implications of Destroyed Evidence

The Florida Supreme Court has sided with state prosecutors over a criminal defendant in a due process dispute that created conflict between Florida appellate courts. fire1

In the case of Patterson v. Florida, the state high court sided with the 1st District Court of Appeals, which found no due process violation in a case where testimony was admitted from state experts who physically examined evidence prior to its destruction, where a defense expert didn’t have the same opportunity. The 1st DCA had ruled it was only a due process violation if the destruction of evidence happened in bad faith. However, the 4th DCA, when faced with the same issue in Lancaster v. State, a 1984 case, the court had ruled that where destroyed evidence was potentially useful to the defense, this is a due process violation, regardless of whether the destruction was in bad faith.

The state high court in reaching this conclusion relied on the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case of Arizona v. Youngblood, which held the state’s loss or destruction of evidence that’s potentially useful to the defense violates due process only when done in bad faith. In the Patterson case, the court ruled there was no due process violation because there was no evidence of bad faith. 

With this, the court effectively approved of the 1st DCA’s decision in Patterson and disprove the 4th DCA’s pre-Youngblood decision in Lancaster.

According to court records in the Patterson case, a jury convicted a defendant of numerous felony crimes after he was accused of committing arson on his house and truck. The arsons for which defendant was convicted completely destroyed both his residence and his truck, which was parked in the garage. It was reported that defendant used the truck to start one of the two fires in the house.

After the state fire marshal and insurance company investigators completed their work – including inspection of the truck – the insurer took custody of the truck and had it destroyed. This happened five months before defendant was arrested and charged.

Because the vehicle itself was not available, the defense team’s fire investigation expert could only review the 300 photos of the burned truck and garage area. He also went to the dwelling and personally inspected the site.

Prior to trial, defendant asked the trial court to dismiss all the charges or at least to exclude state expert witness testimony asserting he had intentionally started the fire – an opinion formed on the basis of the state fire marshal’s inspection of the truck. He argued the state destroyed the truck intentionally and because it was unavailable for his expert witness to review, his constitutional right to due process would be violated if testimony stemming from that inspection was used.

Trial court denied defense motion. State’s expert witness testified burn patterns indicated the fire started from the passenger compartment – not from the electrical components within the truck. There was also evidence of gasoline in the passenger compartment. Defense witness contrasted this by testifying that based on the photos, the burn patterns appeared to be electrical and there was no evidence, based on the photos, that someone had ignited gas in the seat. He indicated doing so would be extremely difficult without suffering injury, which defendant had not.

Jurors found him guilty on all counts.

Defendant appealed, arguing the trial court should have dismissed the charges against him because the destroyed truck was critical in terms of evidentiary value. The 1st DCA disagreed, based on the Youngblood ruling, and the Florida Supreme Court has now affirmed.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

Patterson v. Florida, Aug. 25, 2016, Florida Supreme Court

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9th Circuit: Feds Can’t Pay to Prosecute State-Sanctioned Marijuana, Aug. 18, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Blog