State v. Colvin

State v. Colvin, 2016 MT 129 (May 31, 2016) (McGrath, C.J.) (4-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in dismissing the charge against Colvin based on his claim that the state failed to preserve exculpatory evidence.

Short Answer: No.

Affirmed

Facts: The state charged Colvin with attempted deliberate homicide in the September 4, 2014 shooting of Michael Aja. At the time of the incident, Aja was sitting his Jeep. Colvin claimed he was holding the pistol inside the driver’s side window when it accidentally fired and hit Aja.

On the day of the shooting, law enforcement seized and impounded Aja’s Jeep. As the case developed, the position of the pistol and its distance from the victim because important issues. The state’s theory was that the shot came from several feet outside the vehicle, while Colvin’s theory was that it came from very near or inside the window.

On October 9, 2014, the day Colvin was charged, Colvin’s attorney filed a motion for discovery listing numerous objects and categories of information, and specifically including the vehicle in which Aja was shot and “all material exculpatory or inculpatory of the defendant.” The defense believed the vehicle contained essential evidence such as gunshot residue and blood spatter. The district courted granted the defendant’s discovery motion on October 14, 2014, requiring disclosure of all materials known or discovered to be pertinent to the case.

The state’s expert examined the vehicle and collected evidence, including photos, on October 30, 2014. He concluded, based on that examination and other evidence, that Colvin was seven feet from the vehicle when he fired the shot.

On November 9, 2014, the state returned the vehicle to Aja without notifying the defense or the district court that it was doing so. Aja began using it for his daily travel. On November 21, 2014, not knowing the Jeep had been released, Colvin’s attorney filed a motion to compel, contending the state had not complied with the Court’s discovery order.  The district court granted the motion.

On December 10, the state produced additional items to Colvin’s attorney, including a receipt showing the Jeep was returned to Aja on November 9. The state provided its expert report to the defense on February 10, 2015.

On February 26, 2015, Colvin moved to dismiss the charges based upon the state’s failure to preserve the vehicle.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Concluding the state’s negligent release of the vehicle in the face of an order requiring disclosure deprived Colvin of an opportunity to investigate and prove his case, and violated his due process rights under Brady v. Maryland, the district court granted Colvin’s motion to dismiss the charges. The state appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: A criminal defendant has a right to obtain exculpatory evidence held by the government. A Brady due process violation occurs when the state possessed evidence that had exculpatory or impeachment value to the defense, the evidence was willfully or inadvertently suppressed, and the suppression prejudiced the defense. While there is no evidence of bad faith by the state, it was at least reckless to release the vehicle while an order requiring its production to the defense was in place. The fundamental purpose of the Brady rule is not to punish the state, but to protect the due process rights of the accused. The vehicle evidence was material to both the prosecution and defense, and was no longer intact after it was released to Aja.