Criminal evidence can be any physical and/or verbal evidence that is presented for the purpose of proving a crime. This evidence can take many different forms; additionally, it may be introduced by the defendant in order to prove that they are not guilty of the crime they are being accused of committing. In any criminal trial, the prosecution is tasked with proving that the defendant committed the crime.
Although there are many different types of criminal evidence, it can generally be categorized as being either verbal or physical. Examples of verbal evidence include, but may not be limited to:
- Confessions made by the defendant themselves;
- Testimony offered by witnesses and/or expert witnesses;
- Documents such as a search warrant or other files; and
- Spoken evidence as obtained through a wiretap or other similar technology.
Physical evidence is defined as being any tangible evidence, and is generally presented as an exhibit. An example of this would be the murder weapon being presented as “Exhibit A.” Examples of physical evidence can include, but not be limited to:
- Weapons or other instruments that were used to commit the crime;
- Illegal contraband, specifically drugs, drug money, and drug paraphernalia;
- DNA, blood, or other bodily fluid samples such as sperm;
- Photographs and/or video footage;
- Demonstrative evidence, such as graphs and models, that are intended to clarify the facts of the trial for the judge and/or jury;
- Footprints or other types of tracks; and
- Scientific and forensic evidence.
All types of criminal evidence can be further classified as either direct or circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence gives the prosecution information that is true “beyond a reasonable doubt. An example of this would be a videotape which shows the defendant injuring the victim. Circumstantial evidence, however, does not prove a theory; rather, circumstantial evidence only suggests proof in support of the theory. An example of this would be a knife that fits the description of witness testimony.
Whether in a civil or criminal trial, evidence can be presented by either side in order to prove or disprove that a crime occurred. Evidence is imperative for the prosecution in a criminal proceeding in order to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case, evidence is required in order for the plaintiff to prove that they are entitled to receive damages.
What Is Spoliation Of Evidence?
The outcome of a case is determined by the strength of the evidence that is presented. Because of this fact, the evidentiary rules are considerably strict in terms of the responsibilities of both parties to preserve any and all evidence. Any intentional, reckless, and/or negligent hiding of evidence by either party to the proceeding is considered to be illegal.
These actions are referred to as spoliation of evidence, or tampering with evidence. Spoliation of evidence can result in especially serious legal consequences, which will be further discussed later on. While the concept of spoliation of evidence can be applied in a civil case, it is an issue more frequently associated with criminal cases.
“Hiding” evidence can include any action that results in the:
- Altering; and/or
- Destruction of evidence that is relevant to the case. To summarize, any action which makes the evidence unavailable for the legal proceeding may be considered spoliation of evidence.
Additionally, in some jurisdictions, witness tampering can be considered an example of spoliation of evidence. This would include, but may not be limited to:
- Intimidating a witness;
- Physically preventing them from testifying; and/or
- Persuading them to alter their testimony to better suit the needs of the tampering party.
Are There Any Laws Against Spoliation Of Evidence?
There are various laws, which are more frequently known as evidentiary rules, which impose a duty on the parties and their attorneys to preserve relevant evidence. Evidentiary rules apply whether the case is civil or criminal.
An example of this would be how the Model Rules of Professional Conduct prevent a lawyer from assisting in conduct that could result in spoliation of evidence. Additionally, Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prescribes substantial sanctions for any party’s failure to make disclosures, and/or participate in discovery.
Some examples of these potential sanctions include, but may not be limited to:
- Finding of contempt against the wrongful party;
- Designating facts as established by the prevailing party;
- Prohibiting the wrongful party from supporting and/or opposing claims and/or defenses;
- Dismissing the action or proceeding;
- Rendering a default verdict;
- Striking all or parts of the pleadings; and/or
- Requiring that the wrongful party pay to the prevailing party all reasonable fees, including attorney fees.
Further, Title 18 of the United States Code provides sanctions which include fines and imprisonment for those involved in destroying or helping to destroy evidence. They also apply to those who interfere with a criminal proceeding. An example of this would be how Title 18 asserts that anyone who willfully engages in a bribe to obstruct, delay, and/or prevent communication of information associated with a criminal offense can be imprisoned for up to five years.
What Are The Legal Consequences For Spoliation Of Evidence?
Legal consequences for spoliation of evidence largely depend on your jurisdiction. An example of this would be if the relative of a defendant intentionally destroys the text messages exchanged with the defendant regarding a robbery that the defendant committed. If the relative’s guilt is established after a legal proceeding, the relative could be subject to fines and/or incarceration for spoliation of evidence.
In other jurisdictions, the court may allow a negative inference based on the spoliation of evidence. What this means is that the fact that they attempted to spoil the evidence can be a sign of guilt. As such, in the above example, the court may allow a negative evidentiary inference against the defendant based on the destruction of the texts. The negative inference here would be based on the theory that the spoliation of evidence shows guilt, because there is an attempt to hide the truth.
Another example of this would be how in a civil case involving a defective air bag that resulted in the death of the driver, the car manufacturer erases all of the customer complaints from its onsite computers and backup systems. The court in this jurisdiction may allow the jury to infer that the company’s action establishes the company’s knowledge that its airbags were defective. As such, this inference could substantially weaken the defendant’s case.
Finally, some jurisdictions allow a separate tort action for spoliation of guilt. The penalties in such cases may be punitive, which are ordered to punish the defendant, or remedial in nature. For such torts, the evidence must be relevant to the complainant’s case. “Relevant” means that there must be resulting damage because of the spoliation of the evidence. Additionally, the offending party’s actions must have been deliberate and/or grossly negligent.
Do I Need An Attorney For Spoliation Of Evidence?
If you are involved in a trial and are being accused of spoliation of evidence, or if you are involved in a trial and wish to avoid spoliation of evidence, you will need to consult with a criminal attorney.
An experienced and local criminal lawyer can inform you of your legal rights and obligations according to your state’s specific laws, and can help you maintain the integrity of any evidence. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.