03-18: Intentional Destruction of Evidence by Law Enforcement
Case: Guzman v. State, 28 FLW S829, Fl. S.C.

Date: November 21, 2003

FACTS: The body of a homicide victim was found in the motel room where he lived. He had been stabbed nineteen times. The defendant was eventually indicted, mainly because his prostitute/girlfriend claimed he confessed to the murder. Other than his fingerprints on the telephone in the victim’s room, there was no physical evidence connecting him to the murder. He was convicted and appealed. Among his numerous arguments for a new trial was the fact that law enforcement officer intentionally destroyed crucial evidence in the case. A clump of hair had been found on the back of the victim’s leg at the murder scene. It was disposed of without a written request or a court order in violation of the investigating agency’s procedures and policies. Worse, the hair was destroyed by an officer who was later convicted of stealing items from the evidence room. The defendant maintained that DNA testing of the hair could possibly have shown that someone else committed the murder.

RULING: The Florida Supreme Court first pointed out that the loss or destruction of evidence that is potentially useful to the defense violates due process only if the defendant can show bad faith on the part of the police or prosecution. Bad faith exists when police intentionally destroy evidence they believe would exonerate the accused. In this case, there was no basis for the police to believe that the hair would help prove the defendant’s innocence. In fact, the lead detective testified that since the victim’s skull had been cut multiple times, the hair was bloody, and it matched the color of the victim’s hair, she thought it was the victim’s and therefore insignificant. Since the defendant could not show that the hair was exculpatory or that the police believed it might be, there was no bad faith on the part of law enforcement when the evidence was destroyed. However, the case still serves as a reminder that any potential evidence at a crime scene should be handled appropriately.

Steve Brady
Regional Legal Advisor
Florida Department of Law Enforcement
Orlando Regional Operations Center

Officers should consult with their agency legal advisors to confirm the interpretation provided in this Update and to determine to what extent the case discussed will impact their activities.

For Further Information Contact:
Steve Brady
Regional Legal Advisor
Florida Department of Law Enforcement
Orlando Regional Operations Center