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Breaking Legal Developments

08-06-2001

Published by:
Peter A. Lynch, Esq.
of Cozen O'Connor
palynch@cozen.com
http://www.cozen.com

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:      This weekly newsletter covers:

  1. Sixth Circuit Upholds Arson Conviction Over Defense Objection on Failure to Preserve Evidence
  2. The Circuit Finds Failure to Rescue Not a Civil Rights Violation


(1) SIXTH CIRCUIT UPHOLDS ARSON CONVICTION OVER DEFENSE OBJECTION ON FAILURE TO PRESERVE EVIDENCE

In U. S. v. Wright, No. 00-5010, the defendant challenged his arson conviction arguing the fire investigator should have preserved evidence from the fire scene. On October 6, 1993, a 124,342 square foot Wal-Mart retail and warehouse building in Memphis, Tennessee was destroyed by fire. The day after the fire, the National Response Team of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ("ATF") assisted local fire departments with the investigation of that fire. John Mirocha, an ATF special agent and certified fire investigator, examined the fire scene and interviewed witnesses in order to determine the cause of the fire. After completing his investigation, Mirocha eliminated all accidental causes, including electrical malfunction, from being the cause of the fire. In his opinion, the fire's cause was arson.

During the course of his investigation, Mirocha learned that there had been a previous fire at the same Wal-Mart on October 1, 1993. In a report from the October 1 fire, a fire lieutenant, who was not a trained fire investigator, had indicated that the cause of that fire appeared to be an electrical wiring problem. Based on his awareness of that report, Mirocha examined the electrical system that was suspected to have been the origin of the October 1 fire. He determined that the electrical system in question had not been the origin of either fire. By examining all relevant electrical evidence, Mirocha determined that the October 6 fire was not electrical. While no electrical evidence was preserved for future inspection, Mirocha documented and photographed that evidence before it was destroyed.

In September 1997, Wright was indicted on one count of arson in violation of 18 U.S.C. 844(i) for the October 6, 1993 Wal-Mart fire. He filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, claiming that government investigators, by failing to preserve relevant electrical evidence, "destroyed and/or disposed of all of the critical physical evidence from [the] scene of the fires on October 1, 1993 and October 6, 1993," in violation of his due process right to access exculpatory evidence. The district court denied Wright's motion.

Wright was convicted after a jury trial and was sentenced to fifty-seven months incarceration. He contends that the district court erred by denying his motion to dismiss the indictment. Wright contends that fire investigators' failure to preserve electrical evidence recovered from the October 6, 1993 Wal-Mart fire violated his constitutional right to access exculpatory evidence. Because that evidence was only potentially useful and the government did not act in bad faith by failing to preserve it, Wright's due process right to access exculpatory evidence was not violated.

While Wright contends that the evidence in question was material exculpatory evidence, the evidence was only potentially useful. The heart of Wright's argument is that the destruction of electrical evidence prevented his expert from conducting future tests, the results of which may have exonerated him by showing that an electrical malfunction could have been the cause of the fire. Pursuant to Youngblood, such evidence was not material exculpatory evidence. Instead, it was only potentially useful evidence .

Because the court found no bad faith on the part of fire investigators who failed to preserve the potentially useful electrical evidence, it, like the Youngblood court, rejected Wright's due process claim without further analysis. The record contained no allegation of official animus toward Wright or of a conscious effort to suppress exculpatory evidence. There is no evidence that any fire investigator considered any electrical apparatus to be the cause of the October 6 fire. Even if the fire investigators were negligent in failing to preserve electrical evidence, negligence does not constitute bad faith.

The record demonstrated that a professional, good faith fire investigation was conducted. Wright argues that Mirocha acted in bad faith because he was aware of a fireman's report that an October 1 fire at the Wal-Mart was electrical, suggesting that the same electrical apparatus could have caused the October 6 fire, but Mirocha, a certified fire investigator, independently examined all relevant electrical evidence, including the apparatus suspected to have caused the October 1 fire, before concluding that the October 6 fire was not electrical. Thus, having determined that an electrical malfunction did not cause the October 6 fire, investigators destroyed electrical evidence along with other items which were ruled not to be relevant or material to the fire investigation. The fire scene encompassed over 120,000 square feet of retail and warehouse space and, given the enormity of physical evidence that could have been preserved, we conclude, as did the district court, that the investigators did not act in bad faith by failing to preserve items that it found not to be the source of the fire. His conviction was affirmed.


(2) THE CIRCUIT FINDS FAILURE TO RESCUE NOT A CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATION

In Lansdown v. Chadwick, (Pdf) No. 00-3596 (Aug. 2, 2001), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed an action dismissed by the district court. The decedent had a history of mental illness and for violence. He was seen by a patrol officer pouring gasoline on his property and lighting it. The officer was advised Lansdown had stopped taking his medication. He feared also there were weapons inside. After Lansdown did more damage, the officer told a neighbor not to attempt to rescue and called for assistance.

Firefighters were prevented from entering the house. After five minutes, they sprayed water on the outside of the house. A police officer hit one of the firefighters and they were threatened with arrest. One of the firefighters told the officers they needed to get the victim out. They were told not to. The victim died of smoke inhalation.

His estate sued the officers, the County and the City. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants. The estate sued the officers in their official capacities not individual capacities. The court found no constitutional rights were violated and supervisory liability had to fail. The Court of Appeals found a lack of professionalism but it did not rise to constitutional violations because the victim created the situation. The court did note the actions were careless, incompetent and lacked professionalism.

Mr. Lynch can be reached at Cozen and O'Connor, 501 West Broadway, Suite 1610, San Diego, California 92101, 800-782-3366 (voice), 619-234-7831 (fax), palynch@cozen.com (e-mail), http://www.cozen.com. Follow us on Twitter at @firesandrain.

Please direct comments, suggestions, stories, and other items to the author by e-mail at palynch@cozen.com

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