Spoliation of evidence
The spoliation of evidence is the intentional or negligent withholding, hiding, altering, or destroying of evidence relevant to a legal proceeding. Spoliation has two possible consequences: in jurisdictions where the (intentional) act is criminal by statute, it may result in fines and incarceration for the parties who engaged in the spoliation; in jurisdictions where relevant case law precedent has been established, proceedings possibly altered by spoliation may be interpreted under a spoliation inference.
The spoliation inference is a negative evidentiary inference that a finder of fact can draw from a party's destruction of a document or thing that is relevant to an ongoing or reasonably foreseeable civil or criminal proceeding: the finder of fact can review all evidence uncovered in as strong a light as possible against the spoliator and in favor of the opposing party.
The theory of the spoliation inference is that when a party destroys evidence, it may be reasonable to infer that the party had "consciousness of guilt" or other motivation to avoid the evidence. Therefore, the factfinder may conclude that the evidence would have been unfavorable to the spoliator. Some jurisdictions have recognized a spoliation tort action, which allows the victim of destruction of evidence to file a separate tort action against a spoliator.
Spoliation is often an issue in the context where a person claims he has been injured by a defective product which he then discarded or lost. In that circumstance, the defendant manufacturer or distributor may move to dismiss the case on the basis of spoliation (instead of just having to rely on the plaintiff's usual burden of proof, the argument being that any testimony of plaintiff's witnesses would not overcome the spoliation inference born of the lost evidentiary value of the missing product itself).
A closely related concept to spoliation of evidence is tampering with evidence, which is usually the criminal-law version of the same concept, namely when a person alters, conceals, falsifies, or destroys evidence in an investigation by law enforcement or by a regulatory authority. An act of ruining or destroying evidence may sometimes be considered both spoliation of evidence and tampering with evidence. For example, when police destroy their own dashboard-camera footage or seize and destroy a citizen's video footage of an incident, it may constitute spoliation of evidence in a criminal case against the defendant if the footage tended to create reasonable doubt for the defendant, and also constitute tampering if the video were evidence of police misconduct in a criminal or regulatory investigation of the police's actions. The goal of spoliating or tampering with evidence is usually to cover up evidence that would be disfavorable to the doer in some way.
Companies and organizations often attempt to avoid spoliation of evidence (or being accused or held liable therewith) by using a legal hold. Often, the legal departments of the company or organization will issue a prescribed order to the relevant employees to retain and preserve their discoverable materials (such as e-mails and documents).
- Tampering with evidence
- Contempt of court
- Obstruction of justice
- Perverting the course of justice
- Illegal disposal of bodies in the water
- Spoliation in fire investigation
- Discovery (law)
- Legal hold
- Black's Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004). For an overview of spoliation, see generally Michael Zuckerman, Yes, I Destroyed the Evidence -- Sue Me?, Journal of Computer and Information Law
- Dead link - http://www.law.com/jsp/legaltechnology/pubArticleLT.jsp?id=1182935157632