COA: No error in failure to preserve syringe for jury trial examination

A man was not denied due process when a syringe found in his car was not preserved for examination during a jury trial against him, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has ruled.

During an overnight shift in June 2020, Portland Police Officer Eric Fields saw Edgar Pimentel Jr. and two others acting suspiciously near a downtown theater. When asked what they were doing, Pimentel told the officer they were doing laundry and that a white car parked nearby was theirs.

Fields circled to the back of theater and spent the next three hours conducting surveillance of the parking lot. During that time, he observed several people approach both sides of the white car, remain there for a short period, then walk away.

When Fields again approached the car, he saw Pimentel and a woman in the vehicle who “started reaching around” inside. The officer smelled marijuana and subsequently ran a K-9 around the car, who alerted to presence of narcotics.

The officer asked Pimentel and the passenger to step out of the vehicle. Fields believed Pimentel was “intoxicated on narcotics” and noticed small marks and scabs on his arms consistent with “[t]rack marks from shooting up with a hypodermic needle.”

A search of the car revealed a capped syringe with an attached needle in the front passenger seat, multiple empty plastic baggies and a metal spoon with a burnt residue on it, and another capped syringe with an attached needle inside a bag in the back seat.

Another officer took the woman to jail and found a bag with one gram of fentanyl in her bra. Meanwhile, Fields at the police station uncapped the syringes and verified there were needles attached.

He recapped the syringes and photographed them together, but the needles were not visible in the photographs due to the caps. The syringes were subsequently disposed of for safety concerns.

Pimentel was charged with Level 5 felony possession of a narcotic drug for possessing the fentanyl and Level 6 felony unlawful possession of one syringe. However, the charging information did not identify which syringe Pimentel was being charged with unlawfully possessing.

He moved to dismiss the syringe charge, arguing the state had denied him due process because it had failed to preserve a syringe for him to examine. The Jay Circuit Court denied the motion, and a jury convicted him on all charges. He was also adjudicated as a habitual offender.

An appellate panel affirmed the convictions in Edgar Pimentel, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-994, first finding that the trial court did not err in denying Pimentel’s motion to dismiss the unlawful possession of a syringe charge.

The appellate court concluded the facts in Pimentel’s case were distinguishable from Roberson v. State, 766 N.E.2d 1185 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002), trans. denied. In the case at hand, Fields did not give a subjective opinion describing the character of the evidence, but instead gave eyewitness testimony that the syringe had a needle attached to it.

“The testimony was objectively binary in nature; the syringe either had a needle attached to it or it did not,” Judge Rudolph Pyle wrote. “… We note that although Officer Fields should have photographed the syringe while it was uncapped so that the needle would have been visible, the officer’s failure to do so does not render the syringe materially exculpatory.”

Although the syringe fit the definition of potentially useful evidence, the COA concluded Pimentel had neither alleged nor established that the Portland Police Department acted in bad faith when it disposed of the syringe. Coupled with a lack of evidence suggesting the police department was otherwise acting in bad faith, the court concluded Pimentel’s due process rights were not violated.

Additionally, the appellate panel found sufficient evidence to support Pimentel’s convictions, noting a jury could reasonably infer his capability and intent to maintain dominion and control over both the fentanyl and the syringe.

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