California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479 (1984)

2012-01-13 02:25:45

In Trombetta, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause does not require the government to preserve evidence that could potentially be useful to a criminal defendant.

Trombetta was one of several defendants charged with drunk driving after failing breath tests on California highways. Each defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress the test results, because the police did not preserve the breath samples so that the defendants could attempt to prove the results were inaccurate. However, the state appellate court ruled that the failure to preserve the breath samples violated the defendants’ due process rights.

The U. S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed. The Court explained that although the state has a duty under Brady v. Maryland to preserve and disclose exculpatory evidence, that duty does not generally extend to evidence that might or might not be exculpatory. The Court concluded that the destruction of the breath samples did not violate the defendants’ rights, because it was very unlikely that retesting of the evidence would have benefited the defendants and because there was no indication that the police had destroyed the samples in a bad faith effort to hamper their defenses.

Trombetta thus made clear that the government is not always required to preserve potentially exculpatory evidence. Four years later, in Arizona v. Youngblood, the Court extended Trombetta to hold that the police may always destroy potentially exculpatory evidence, including evidence that could conclusively exonerate the defendant, so long as they do not act in bad faith.


References and Further Reading

  • Imwinkelried, Edwin, and Norman Garland. Exculpatory Evidence. 2d ed. Michie, 1996
  • Stacy, Tom, The Search for Truth in Constitutional Criminal Procedure, Columbia Law Review 91 (1991): 1369
  • Whitaker, Barbara. ‘‘DNA Frees Inmate Years After Justices Rejected Plea.’’ New York Times, August 11, 2000

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51 (1988); Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); Due Process; Fourteenth Amendment