Quick. What is the worst thing you can do when you are the defendant in a multi-million dollar lawsuit alleging you held people in jail for longer than 48 hours before letting them see a magistrate?
If you answered "destroy evidence of your violations," you are correct!
US District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt entered a finding last week that the City of Houston destroyed evidence. The city is fighting a lawsuit that alleges people were subjected to warrantless arrests and held in the city jail for more than 48 hours before being taken before a magistrate to determine whether there was probable cause to hold them.
The evidence in question was wiped from the computer hard drives of top HPD officials.
City officials blame the problem on the bottleneck in the county jail that prevented detainees in the city jail from being transported to the county facility. But, nonetheless, the order from the court told officials that people arrested without a warrant were to be taken before a magistrate within 48 hours or they were to be released.
In issuing his order, Judge Hoyt isn't accusing the city of deliberating destroying evidence in order to gain an advantage at trial, but the order does mean that a jury will receive an instruction that they are to infer that the city deliberately destroyed evidence, that the city knowingly held people for more than 48 hours without seeing a magistrate and that the city acted with deliberate indifference to the fact they were violating people's constitutional rights.
That, my friends, is a killer instruction in a civil case. It's a way of a judge telling the defendant that it might be time to work out a settlement because the verdict could be messy.
There are two things that stick out about this ruling. The first is that it was made in the first place. Anyone who has practiced law knows that evidence gets destroyed, lost or misplaced - and not necessarily by design. The hard part is trying to prove it happened. If you never had the evidence in your hands or you never saw the evidence beforehand, it can be damn near impossible to prove it ever existed.
Generally one finds out about the loss of evidence because someone involved in, or with knowledge of the destruction, comes forward. Sometimes you find out that evidence in your case has been destroyed or lost because of testimony in an unrelated case in which evidence was lost or destroyed.
In this case I would speculate that either someone inside the police department came forward and told someone involved in the lawsuit about wiping the hard drives or someone on the plaintiff's side already had copies of documents that were later destroyed and put two and two together when the city didn't produce the documents during discovery. But, again, I'm just guessing.
The second thing that sticks out about the ruling is just how rare it is for a court to issue such a ruling. If the evidence was destroyed for innocent reasons or if the evidence was just lost, a court will not issue the instruction. In order to issue the instruction the court must find that the party that lost or destroyed the evidence had a legal duty to preserve it, whether the loss or destruction of the evidence breached that duty and whether the breach harmed the other party.
Now it looks like taxpayers are going to be the ones paying for the actions of the police department.
Someone has an awful lot of 'splaining to do about this one.