The Trombetta Motion in California
To protect your right to a fair trial when you're accused of a crime, law enforcement, and prosecutors must preserve all evidence about the case, including evidence potentially helpful to you or proving your innocence.
If that evidence is compromised or destroyed, it can negatively impact your ability to defend yourself and potentially violates your Constitutional right to due process.
When this happens, your attorney may file a Trombetta Motion, also called a Trombetta-Youngblood Motion, or just T-Motion, asking the judge to dismiss the case or agree to reduced charges.
In other words, a Trombetta motion is a legal motion that a criminal defense lawyer will file in court when helpful defendant evidence, or potentially beneficial, that was gathered in a case was destroyed or mishandled by the police or prosecutor.
This motion asks for a case dismissal or lesser charges because evidence helpful to the defendant was tampered with or destroyed (spoilage of evidence). A Trombetta motion can be filed in all criminal cases to challenge misdemeanor, felony, or wobbler charges.
Once filed, a judge will grant or deny the motion after considering if the evidence in question favored the defendant and if law enforcement or prosecutors misbehaved. Let's review this topic further below.
What is the Origin of the Trombetta Motion?
The Trombetta Motion derives its name from the landmark 1984 case, California v. Trombetta (467 U.S. 479), in which the United States Supreme Court established guidelines for the preservation of evidence by the prosecution.
The Court held that when evidence is destroyed or lost by the government, a defendant's right to due process may be violated if the evidence was both material and potentially exculpatory.
What is the Legal Significance in California?
As noted, in California, the Trombetta Motion is a pretrial motion filed by the defense to dismiss charges because the prosecution has failed to preserve material and potentially exculpatory evidence.
This motion is based on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees fair treatment for defendants in criminal proceedings.
Suppose the court finds that the prosecution violated a defendant's due process rights. In that case, the remedy may be the suppression of evidence, a new trial, or even the dismissal of the charges.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: David is charged with sexual assault. The only witness is the alleged victim, and David contends the victim has pointed the finger at him due to mistaken identity.
Officers collected DNA evidence and a semen sample from the crime scene. That evidence could have exonerated David, but an officer with a vendetta against David tampered with the evidence. The judge will likely grant the Trombetta Motion based on bad faith and the fact that the DNA evidence was potentially exculpatory for David.
EXAMPLE 2: Jerry is charged with assault and battery due to a fight in a bar. Surveillance video clearly shows the other party threw the first punch, and Jerry attempted to defend himself.
Police collect this footage but accidentally destroy it, prompting Jerry's lawyer to file a T-Motion. Although the video was potentially exculpatory, there are other eyewitnesses attesting that Jerry was the victim.
The judge will likely deny the T-Motion because no bad faith occurred, and the tape loss doesn't necessarily prevent Jerry from presenting other evidence in his favor.
What Factors Are Considered by the Judge?
When determining whether to grant a Trombetta Motion, the judge will weigh two key factors in succession, as discussed below.
Determining the materiality and exculpatory nature of the evidence
The judge first assesses if the lost or destroyed evidence is material and potentially favorable or exculpatory. Material evidence is that which has a significant bearing on the outcome of the case.
In other words, the evidence must be substantial enough that its absence could affect the defendant's ability to mount an effective defense.
Favorable evidence is that which could potentially help the defendant with their defense, while exculpatory evidence effectively proves the defendant's innocence or mitigates their culpability.
Evaluating bad faith and prejudice
Next, the judge will weigh whether the police or the prosecution acted in bad faith by intentionally destroying or failing to preserve the evidence and whether the defendant has been prejudiced by the loss of the evidence, meaning it has significantly impaired their ability to defend themselves effectively.
Note that accidental destruction of the evidence does not count as bad faith or negligent handling of the evidence. The evidence in question must have been purposely compromised.
In weighing these two factors, the judge may grant the Trombetta Motion based on either or both. If both factors apply (i.e., the evidence was potentially exculpatory, and the police acted in bad faith), the judge will likely grant the motion.
However, the judge may also grant the motion based solely on the favorability of the evidence, even if it was accidentally destroyed, if the judge feels the absence of that evidence impacts the defendant's right to due process or a fair trial.
What Happens If the Judge Grants the T-Motion?
If the Trombetta Motion is granted, the judge will typically do one of three things, depending on how significant the evidence is/was to the case:
- Suppress evidence: The court may exclude the affected evidence from being presented or considered in the trial and any related evidence that was not destroyed. This can weaken the prosecution's case and potentially benefit the defendant.
- Reduce the charges: If, for example, the evidence in question was related to proving a felony offense, the judge might reduce the charge to a misdemeanor—or a misdemeanor to an infraction.
- Dismiss the charges: In some cases, the judge may dismiss the charges against the defendant entirely due to violating their due process rights caused by the loss or destruction of material and potentially exculpatory evidence.
If you or a family member has been charged with a California crime and you believe favorable evidence was tampered with, contact our law firm for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.