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Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses Tampering with Evidence Conviction

October 25, 2012

In King v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals overturned a conviction for tampering with evidence after determining that the State failed to present sufficient evidence at trial.

Shala King was stopped by the police for a traffic violation. After she pulled over, one of the officers testified that he smelled the odor of burnt marijuana coming from King’s vehicle. After ordering her to step out of the car, the officers tried to detain King. She resisted and a struggle ensued. While the officers were attempting to restrain King on the ground, they noticed she was chewing on something. Believing she may have tried to swallow the marijuana in order to hide it, the officers asked King to open her mouth, and she complied. The officers observed a small patch of a green leafy substance on King’s tongue and on the inside of her cheeks. At trial, the officers testified that based on their training and experience the substance found in King’s mouth was consistent with marijuana. The officers did not locate any drugs during the subsequent searches of King or her car.

The Georgia Court of Appeals held that there was insufficient evidence to support the State’s theory that King was tampering with evidence by attempting to ingest marijuana. The only evidence presented by the State were the statements of the police officers and a video showing that King complied with all of their requests during their search.

The Court distinguished King’s case from ones in which the Court had previously affirmed convictions for tampering with suspected drug evidence. In those cases, independent facts—such as the recovery of drug paraphernalia or the defendant’s refusal to expel the substance from his mouth—suggested the defendant was attempting to destroy physical evidence in order to escape apprehension. Here, not only did King comply with the officers’ requests, but the officers did not take any steps to confirm that the substance in her mouth was, in fact, marijuana. The officers failed to recover any of the green substance found in King’s mouth nor was King subjected to a blood test to determine if she had recently ingested marijuana. Moreover, neither officer actually saw King put anything in her mouth.

Because the officers in this case did so little to corroborate their suspicions of evidence tampering, the circumstantial nature of the evidence admitted at trial was deemed by the Court to be insufficient to establish guilt of tampering with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

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