Criminal Law Blog

Police have a duty to preserve tangible evidence that comes even temporarily within their possession, custody, or control.

Weems v. United States (decided August 9, 2018)

Players: Associate Judges Glickman and Easterly, Senior Judge Pryor. Opinion for the Court by Judge Glickman. Concurring Opinion by Judge Easterly. D.C. Law Students in Court for Weems. Trial Judge: Ann O’Regan Keary.

Facts: Weems was arrested for shoplifting. Evidence showed that after Weems took four watches from a Wal-Mart jewelry department, a manager followed him to the bedding department, where Weems removed the security tags and packaging. The manager contacted the store security guard, an off-duty MPD officer. The officer and manager then went to confront Weems and found him taking more watches out of their packaging.

After placing Weems under arrest, the officer confiscated the watches but eventually returned them to Wal-Mart. The record does not show what happened to them after. The officer did not collect the security tags from the watches. Surveillance from the incident was lost in a hard drive crash in 2014. At trial, Weems moved for dismissal or appropriate sanction based on the government’s failure to preserve the watches, security tags, and surveillance. The trial court rejected this motion and found Weems guilty at a bench trial.

Issue: Whether the trial court abused its discretion in failing to sanction the government for violating Rule 16(a)(1)(E)?

Holding: No. There can be no violation of Rule 16(a)(1)(E) from failure to preserve tangible evidence that was never within the government’s possession, custody, or control. “Possession” means actual, not constructive, possession. “Custody” refers to property held for third-party benefit. “Control” means a “legal right” to access property “on demand,” for instance, by virtue of a contract or intergovernmental agreement.  On the other hand, neither third-party willingness to produce evidence nor government ability to obtain it by subpoena is sufficient to create “control.”

Under this test, the government only had a duty to preserve the watches seized, albeit briefly, by the police. By contrast, the police never assumed possession, custody, or control of the video or security tags, and there was no duty to preserve them based on the Wal-Mart employees’ role in the investigation. Participating did not make them “agents of law enforcement” or give MPD legal right to obtain the video and security tags. The watches, on the other hand, were confiscated by police and thus were in the government’s actual, physical custody, even if only temporarily. Even so, the trial court appropriately denied sanctions because there was no evidence of bad faith and the watches had little if any evidentiary value.

Of Note: 

  • This opinion does not alter the government’s duty to preserve written and recorded defendant statements under former Rule 16(a)(1)(A)/current Rule 16(a)(1)(B), which is governed by the Court’s opinion in Robinson v. United States, 825 A.2d 318 (D.C. 2003). See Slip Op. at 13-14.
  • The Court recognizes “that there could be circumstances in which a private party is sufficiently aligned with and subject to the direction of the police or prosecutor as to be deemed a member of the prosecution team for Rule 16 purposes,” but finds no such circumstances on the record presented.
    • Judge Easterly’s concurrence emphasizes that this holding does not take into account any official agreement between Wal-Mart and MPD or the fact that the officer retained his police powers and obligation to preserve evidence while off duty. Because possession/custody/control is a fact-bound inquiry, these factors may or may not lead to a different outcome in a different case. WC

Read the full opinion here.