All DUI cases involve evidence that was gathered by either law enforcement, the prosecutor, or both. The reason they gather this evidence is to try to convict you—they are looking for solid proof that you were intoxicated. Sometimes, however, the evidence shows the opposite: it suggests that you were sober, or not driving, or otherwise undermines the case against you. No matter what the evidence shows, however, the government must preserve it. They cannot throw out, destroy, “lose” or otherwise allow evidence to become unavailable. If they do, your lawyer can file a motion known as a Trombetta-Youngblood motion.
The purpose of a Trombetta-Youngblood motion is simple: it is a formal request asking the judge to dismiss the case because evidence that may have helped you was destroyed. In some cases, it could mean walking away from a DUI with no charges.
Why is it called a “Trombetta-Youngblood” motion?
The motion originated with a landmark Supreme Court case where an innocent man named Larry Youngblood was wrongfully convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. He was arrested in 1985 for supposedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting a child. The child said the man who assaulted him had a scarred right eye; Youngblood had a bad left eye. Nonetheless, Youngblood was arrested.
Meanwhile, police had taken a semen sample from the assaulted boy and his clothing, which could have been used to tell for sure whether Youngblood was the man who assaulted him. The sample and clothing were stored wrong, and became unusable for DNA testing. Despite this lack of proof, Larry Youngblood was wrongly convicted and sent to prison.
But Youngblood and his lawyers appealed the conviction. They claimed that the degradation of the DNA evidence deprived Youngblood of his right to a fair trial. His case, Arizona v. Youngblood went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1988. This case, along with an earlier ruling in California v. Trombetta, became the standard by which destroyed evidence is judged. Now, all motions to object to destroyed or mishandled evidence are known as Trombetta-Youngblood motions.
(Trombetta was eventually cleared, when DNA technology improved enough to test the original evidence. He was completely innocent of the charges, and another man’s DNA matched the sample.)
How does a Trombetta-Youngblood motion work in my DUI case?
If there was evidence that may have helped your defense, and it was improperly stored (or completely deleted or destroyed), you have a right to file a Trombetta-Youngblood motion. This kind of mishandling of evidence is considered a violation of your Constitutional right to a due process. By allowing the evidence to become unusable, the government has essentially deprived you of a fair trial.
But just because you file the motion doesn’t mean it will automatically succeed. The Youngblood Supreme Court decision set up a two-step analysis that the judge in your case must follow. The judge will ask:
- How favorable or “exculpatory” was the missing evidence? Exculpatory evidence is evidence that would clear your name. Favorable evidence is evidence that would help build your case, even if it doesn’t single-handedly prove you’re innocent. If the evidence that was mishandled or destroyed would clearly have helped your case, then the fact that it is no longer available violates your rights, and the judge will likely rule in your favor. If it wasn’t clearly favorable, however, the judge goes on to the second step.
- If it was only potentially favorable, did the government act in bad faith? Bad faith means that they mishandled the evidence with ill intent, out of spite or with a desire to hurt your case. It basically means someone intentionally destroyed the evidence. If everyone acted in good faith to try to preserve the evidence, and it was only destroyed through negligence or accident, then the judge will rule against you. You will still have to go to trial. But if it seems that someone intentionally tampered with or destroyed the evidence, the judge will likely rule in your favor.
What are examples of situations where a Trombetta-Youngblood motion would succeed or fail?
Example 1: Successful Trombetta-Youngblood Motion
You are arrested by the sheriff’s office for DUI and they give you a breath test. You mouth off to the deputy about how you’re going to challenge the breath test and the results will “never hold up in court.” The deputy gets angry, and decides to teach you a lesson—he deletes all the records of how the breath test was calibrated, depriving you of evidence. The calibration records may or may not have helped your case, but he acted in bad faith, so the Trombetta-Youngblood motion gets your case dismissed.
Example 2: Unsuccessful Trombetta-Youngblood Motion
You are arrested for DUI and a trained officer draws a blood sample for drug testing. The blood draw is done correctly, but the person who sends it to the lab is new, and does not properly package the sample. The sample is broken during transit and the lab says that it is untestable. There is no way of knowing whether testing the sample would help your case or not, and its destruction was an accident—not bad faith. Your Trombetta-Youngblood motion is denied.
Example 3: Successful Trombetta-Youngblood Motion
You are pulled over on the way home from a restaurant and you are surprised when you fail a roadside breath test. You insist to the officer that there must be some other explanation, perhaps related to your chronic heartburn. As proof, you give the officer the receipt from your restaurant meal that night: it clearly shows that you ordered a diet soda and no alcohol. The officer is unconvinced, and arrests you anyway—but the receipt is never seen again. Since the receipt would clearly help your case, your Trombetta-Youngblood motion should succeed.
What happens if I have a Trombetta-Youngblood motion? Do I win my case?
Missing or damaged evidence is taken seriously. It doesn’t just reflect an accident on the part of law enforcement: it means that a crucial Constitutional right of yours has been taken away, and that you may no longer be able to get a fair trial. Thus, if your motion is successful, and if the evidence was crucial enough to your case, some or all of the charges against you could be dismissed with no trial needed. This can mean walking away from the court with no DUI conviction and no sentence.
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