On May 30, the Supreme Court of Mississippi handed down a very interesting opinion on a case litigated by Coxwell & Associates’ very own Chuck Mullins. In Freeman v. State of Mississippi, The Supreme Court reversed Freeman’s conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) first offense, which was a great accomplishment for Mr. Mullins, as it is not very often the Supreme Court reverses DUI convictions. Because the State lost key evidence pertaining to Freeman’s arrest, the Court reversed the DUI conviction and rendered judgment in Freeman’s favor. Since this evidence was crucial to Freeman’s defense, the Court maintained that by losing this key evidence, the State had violated Freeman’s due process right to present a complete defense.
Because the details surrounding Freeman’s arrest and DUI charge were fiercely contested, the destroyed evidence, which the State was ordered by the court to maintain, would have played a vital role in resolving the dispute. After stopping Freeman on Highway 51 in Madison County, the officer arrested him and took him to the Madison County Sheriff’s Department. While there, the officer twice administered the Intoxilyzer test and determined that Freeman’s BAC was .09. Thereafter, the officer issued Freeman a ticket for DUI first offense.
Maintaining his innocence, Freeman issued a subpoena, requesting that the officer present all records, statements, videotapes, audiotapes, and any other evidence related to Freeman’s arrest; however, these requests were not met. In fact, Mr. Mullins was not able to view the video recording of Freeman’s stop until the justice court trial. At trial the court found Freeman guilty of DUI first offense. Freeman maintained that the video revealed details of the arrest that were quite different than the details later testified to by the arresting officer. However, the videotape of the arrest was destroyed by the State, so certain facts of the arrest are still unclear. After appealing his guilty verdict and requesting a new trial, Freeman agreed to a lengthy continuance (the attorneys at Coxwell & Associates do not fault officers for choosing to serve in the military, and sometimes that service requires deployment), as long as the State agreed to preserve all key evidence of the arrest, especially the officer’s video recording from the night of the arrest. Freeman waived his right to a speedy and fair trial to accommodate the State by agreeing to a continuance; however, the State did not hold up its end of the bargain by failing to preserve the videotape.
The video recording of Freeman’s arrest was stored on the laptop’s hard drive and put into storage, where it was eventually destroyed. As a result, the court determined that it would infer that the lost video recording favored Freeman, since Freeman intended to rely on this evidence for his defense. Freeman argued that the destroyed video recording showed him driving safely and abiding by traffic laws. Freeman insists the video also revealed that neither his speech nor his coordination were impaired. The arresting officer even admitted at trial that he planned to let Freeman go, and let someone pick him up to take him home. The officer admitted that at this point, his investigation of Freeman had ceased. However, the officer decided to arrest Freeman after he questioned the officer’s motive in not letting him drive home after the officer had concluded his investigation into Freeman’s intoxication level.
Typically, in spoliation-of-evidence cases, the Mississippi Supreme Court applies a three-part test to determine whether the destruction of evidence violates the defendant’s due process rights. In this case, however, the Supreme Court considered the unique circumstances of this case, and determined that the typical application of the three-part test would not properly address this issue. Recognizing the importance of this video evidence to the defendant’s case, the lower court ordered the State to preserve this evidence. Consequently, the State was obligated to preserve this evidence to allow the defendant to present a valid defense at his appeal. In fact, the arresting officer even admitted at trial that the destroyed video would have cleared up any disputed facts.
Since the video offered objective, indisputable evidence of what actually occurred during the traffic stop, it was an essential element of Freeman’s defense; therefore, a crucial element of Freeman’s defense was lost forever when this video evidence was destroyed. Considering the nature of this recording, the Court also noted that this evidence was of such a nature that its preservation was not unduly burdensome. In fact, all the State had to do was simply copy the video and store it in a safe place until the hearing. Given the significance of this destroyed evidence, the Court concluded that the defendant would be unable to present a complete defense since the videotape was destroyed. The loss of the videotape also restricted defense counsel’s ability to cross-examine the arresting officer at trial. Given these doubts as to Freeman’s ability to present a complete defense, and concerns over whether Freeman could receive a fair trial, the Supreme Court reversed and rendered Freeman’s DUI conviction. Thus, Freeman’s due process right to present a complete defense was compromised due to the destruction of the video recording.