Rural Michigan Police Department Sanctioned for Spoliation of Audio Evidence Surrounding Fatal Shooting
In Van Buren v. Crawford County et. al., Case No. 13-14565 (E.D. Mich., Jan. 17, 2017), Plaintiff, the personal representative for the estate of William Reddie, sued Defendant Grayling Police Department for excessive force related claims in connection with Reddie’s death. Defendant officers allegedly shot and killed Reddie while trying to remove his child from his home in connection with a CPS order. The court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants pending the outcome of a spoliation sanctions motion filed by Plaintiff.
Plaintiff filed a Motion for Sanctions due to alleged spoliation of audio recordings of the events leading to Reddie’s death. Defendants provided the Michigan State Police with a CD purporting to contain the related recordings; however, the State Police determined that the disc was unreadable. Defendants did not produce any requested audio or video files, and Plaintiff filed a Motion to Compel. The court ordered that Plaintiff’s expert could inspect the city’s computer system. When the expert arrived, he was advised that the computer system had been replaced after Reddie’s death, and all the audio and video were destroyed. The expert inspected the new computer system and found a number of videos recorded from a vehicle identified as GPD01, which the employees advised him was the officer’s car. However, Defendants contended that the officer was in GPD02, and the metadata from the unreadable CD was for GPD02. Defendants also asserted that there would be no video of the incident, as it took place in Reddie’s apartment and not within the view of the dash cam. Investigation revealed a missing SD card as well. The court then ordered that the expert could search the computer for more recordings, but the department refused him access when he arrived.
The court found that Defendants Grayling PD and Officer Somero had control and possession of the evidence and also that it was relevant. Importantly, the court found that Defendants engaged in deliberate spoliation of audio evidence. The court determined that Defendants acted with more than mere carelessness (“at best, Defendants were remarkably reckless. At worst… [they] intentionally destroyed evidence…”). Accordingly, the court ordered an adverse inference that Defendants Grayling PD and Officer Somero had the burden of proving to the jury that the recordings would not have favored Plaintiff.