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Name: United States v. Sivilla
Case #: 11-50484
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 05/07/2013
Summary

Where there is no bad faith, government’s pretrial destruction of evidence does not warrant dismissal of the case, but court should have given remedial jury instruction. Defendant’s vehicle was stopped at a border checkpoint as he attempted to enter the United States from Mexico. Drugs were found in a hidden compartment in his vehicle. As he intended to show at trial he was unaware of the hiding place in the car, and that it could have been easily accessed while the vehicle was out of his control, defendant sought to have an expert examine the car. He discovered that, in violation of a court order that the evidence be preserved, it had been sold at auction. His requests for dismissal of the drug charges, or alternatively, for a remedial instruction regarding destruction of evidence, were denied. He appealed his conviction. Held: Reversed due to denial of remedial instruction. To prove that government destruction of evidence violated a defendant’s constitutional rights, it must be shown that exculpatory evidence was destroyed in bad faith and that the destruction renders defendant unable to obtain comparable evidence by reasonable means. (California v. Trombetta (1984) 467 U.S. 479.) The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the dismissal motion, as the exculpatory value of the vehicle was not obvious. However, the trial court erred in holding that bad faith is required to obtain a remedial jury instruction regarding the destruction of evidence; whether such instruction should be given is determined based on a balancing test in which the court examines the nature and quality of any available secondary evidence. Here the car was destroyed while in the government’s custody due to negligence. Defendant was thereby deprived of the primary and any effective substitute evidence needed for his defense, requiring reversal.