The Tennessee Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, today upheld a trial court’s dismissal of DUI and other charges against a McMinnville woman because a video recording of the woman’s stop and arrest was lost.
In November 2010, a McMinnville police officer pulled over Angela M. Merriman because she veered into his lane of traffic from a center turn lane. After attempting to conduct several field sobriety tests, the officer placed Ms. Merriman under arrest. She told the officer she had taken a Valium and hydrocodone earlier that day. A camera in the police officer’s vehicle captured video of the traffic stop, the attempted field sobriety tests, and the arrest.
The officer referred to the video during his testimony at Ms. Merriman’s preliminary hearing. When defense lawyers sought access to the recording, however, they were told that the video was missing. Subsequently, Ms. Merriman filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the State failed to preserve evidence that potentially could exonerate her.
The trial court granted the dismissal at a pre-trial hearing, applying a 1999 Tennessee case that sets forth the procedure for determining whether a trial conducted without the lost evidence would be fundamentally fair to the defendant. In this case, the trial court first determined that the State had an obligation to preserve the video of Ms. Merriman’s stop and arrest, applied the three remaining factors from the 1999 case, and concluded that it would not be fair to continue to trial without the video.
The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, concluding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the charges.
In its Opinion released today, the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal, concluding that the State had a duty to preserve the video recording and failed in that duty when the video recording was lost. Because of the obligation to preserve evidence that could possibly clear Ms. Merriman of wrongdoing or assist in her defense, the Court then looked at the other three factors outlined in the 1999 case. It determined that the loss of the video recording resulted from simple negligence; the lost evidence had significance when considered in light of all the other evidence, and its loss prevented viewing the event as it had occurred; and the sufficiency of the other evidence was inconclusive. The Court determined that the loss of the evidence deprived Ms. Merriman of her right to a fair trial.