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Sixth Circuit (Federal Court) meeting en banc rejects Michigan evidence policy

State prisoner Kenneth Adkins alleged that he was injured by a corrections officer, Basil Wolever, in the process of removing his handcuffs.  The incident was caught on tape and and the tape was reviewed by Corrections Department officials, however, when Adkins filed a lawsuit, the videotape and still photos of the incident "could not be located".  We reported in an earlier log entry that the Federal judge hearing the case was troubled by the fact that Michigan law did not allow him to sanction Wolever's employer for "losing" this key evidence. 

The federal appellate court for our region (the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals) decided to consider, as a group, whether a federal court hearing this controversy should apply federal procedural rules, rather than accepting the Michigan practice which does not sanction loss of evidence in this situation.  Upon consideration, the Sixth Circuit judges decided unanimously that the case should be returned to the trial judge with the authority to impose sanctions if they are warranted. 

The Court decided, en banc, to "recognize--as does every other federal court of appeals to have addressed the question--that a federal court's inherent powers include  broad discretion to craft proper sanctions for spoliated evidence."  It noted that a proper spoliation [loss of evidence] sanction "should serve both fairness and punitive functions." 

The court also recognized that Wolever may have played no role in the loss of this evidence, and for that reason it instructed the lower court to make a "fact-intensive" inquiry into the party's "degree of fault."  Clearly, part of the problem here is the fact that immunity rules result in Wolever's defense being managed--and Adkin's compensation being paid, if appropriate--by a "third party" (the employing governmental entity).  The practical impact of this immunity-inspired situation is to create an artificial obstacle to fair judicial process, based on the fiction that Wolever's employer is not involved in the litigation.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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