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In Deciding Spoliation Sanctions Motion, Court Determines if Police Defendants Intended to Destroy Cell Phones

Posted on March 14th, 2018

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In Dotson, et al. v. Edmonson, et al., No. 16-15371, (E.D. La. Jan. 22, 2018), the issue considered by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana was whether sanctions were warranted based upon claims of spoliation re phone records.  Lyle Dotson, et al., (“Plaintiff”) moved for sanctions arguing that Defendants Col. Michael Edmonson and the Louisiana State Police (“LSP”), et al., (“Defendants”) destroyed or failed to preserve electronically stored information in the form of cell phone records and call logs from the evening of October 7, 2015.

Plaintiff argued that the records sought for this October 7, 2015 time period was relevant to a drug bust involving the Plaintiff (the “Incident”), which Incident was also the subject of civil suit filed by Plaintiff. The Defendants gave interrogatory deposition testimony which indicated that LSP troopers relied on their LSP-issued (or LSP-funded) cell phones to communicate.  Plaintiff asserted that this established the existence of ESI like call logs and text messages on those cell phones.  Plaintiff further asserted that as early as October 7, 2016, Defendants had notice of pending litigation and therefore had a duty to preserve all relevant evidence. Despite such prior notice regarding Plaintiff’s claims as to the Incident, Defendants traded in their cell phones about a month after Plaintiff filed his suit.

Plaintiff issued discovery requests and filed several motions to compel in his efforts to obtain the call logs and text messages. Plaintiff asserts that the unavailability of the records has irreparably  prejudiced his case, since the communications between the Defendants were crucial to determining whether it was reasonable for the police to stop and search the Plaintiff at the time of the Incident.  In response, the Defendants argued that the Plaintiff’s suit unfairly suggested one Defendant acted in bad faith.

In making its deliberation, the Court initially observed that the duty to preserve material evidence arises not only during litigation, but can also arise during the period prior to litigation.  Such duty results when a party knew or should have known that litigation was imminent. In such an instance, the Court stated that it may order an adverse jury instruction if the Court finds that the offending party acted with intent to destroy the electronically stored information. However, in the matter under consideration, the Court found the Plaintiff failed to establish that Defendants had a duty to preserve the electronically stored information related to the cell phones or that the Defendant’s intended the destruction of the cell phones. Because the Court found that there was no evidence presented by the Plaintiff that bad faith was involved in the spoliation of the cell phones, it denied the motion for spoliation sanctions. The Court made further order that Plaintiff could elicit testimony about the loss of cell phone records and text messages, finding this testimony to be relevant evidence. However, the Court stated that it would not instruct the jury as to an adverse inference regarding the loss of the phones.

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