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Sixth Circuit: No Sanction for Third-Party Spoilation in Michigan

By Matt Clarke

On March 21, 2008, a panel of the Sixth Circuit court of appeals held that a defendant could not be sanctioned for third-party spoilation of evidence in a Michigan case involving excessive use of force by a state prison guard. The panel also recommended that the en banc court review the issue and change the law to allow federal courts to sanction such conduct when appropriate.

Kenneth Ray Adkins, a Michigan state prisoner, filed a civil rights suit in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility guard Basil Wolever assaulted and injured him in his cell while he was handcuffed. Adkins said Wolever yanked his hands through the door slot with such force as to cause permanent injuries. An internal prison investigation concluded that a videotape of the incident was inconclusive because the view was partially blocked by guards. When Adkins filed suit, he requested the video tape and color photographs of his injuries, only to be told that they had been destroyed. Black and white photocopies of the photographs were eventually produced by prison officials.

Adkins filed a motion for an adverse jury instruction against Wolever due to spoilation of evidence. Applying Michigan state law, which does not allow sanctions for pre-litigation, third-party spoilation of evidence, the district court denied the motion. Adkins appealed the denial of the instruction.

The Sixth Circuit panel held that current case law in the Sixth Circuit interpreting Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 required that federal courts apply state law to spoilation of evidence issues, but there was also contrary Sixth Circuit precedent. Every other circuit to address the issue applied federal law. Therefore, while upholding the district court's decision because it was not an abuse of discretion under current precedent, the panel encouraged the en banc court to review the issue and change the law so that federal law would apply to spoilation sanctions issues. The district court's denial of the spoilation instruction was affirmed. Adkins was represented by Grand Rapids attorney Joseph M. Infante.

See: Adkins v. Wolever, 520 F.3d 585, (6th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Adkins v. Wolever