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U.S. Supreme Court
CALIFORNIA v. TROMBETTA, 467 U.S. 479 (1984)

  1. We conclude, therefore, that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require that law enforcement agencies preserve breath samples in order to introduce the results of breath-analysis tests at trial.[fn12] Accordingly, the judgment of the California Court of Appeal is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


  1. Page 481 Law enforcement agencies in California are obliged to use breath-analysis equipment that has been approved by the State's Department of Health. See 17 Cal. Admin. Code § 1221 (1976). The Department has approved a number of blood-alcohol testing devices employing a variety of technologies, see List of Instruments and Related Accessories Approved for Breath Alcohol Analysis (Dec. 20, 1979), reprinted in App. 238-247, of which the Omicron Intoxilyzer is the most popular model, see Brief for Petitioner 6, n. 6.
  2. Page 482 Under California law, drunken driving suspects are given the choice of having their blood-alcohol concentration determined by either a blood test, a urine test, or a breath test. Cal. Veh. Code Ann. § 13353 (West 1971 and Supp. 1984). Suspects who refuse to submit to any test are liable to have their driving licenses suspended. Ibid.
  3. Page 482 The California Department of Health has approved a device, known as an Intoximeter Field Crimper-Indium Tube Encapsulation Kit (Kit), which officers can use to preserve breath samples. App. 247. To use the Kit, a suspect must breathe directly into an indium tube, which preserves samples in three separate chambers. See 142 Cal.App.3d 138, 142, 190 Cal.Rptr. 319, 321 (1983). The breath trapped in each chamber can later be used to determine the suspect's blood-alcohol concentration through the use of a laboratory instrument known as a Gas Chromatograph Intoximeter, which has also been approved by the California Department of Health. App. 242-243. Because the suspect must breathe directly into the indium tube, the Kit cannot be used to preserve the same breath sample used in an Intoxilyzer test. See, supra, at 481-482. Other devices, Page 483 similar in function to the Kit, can be attached to an Intoxilyzer and used to collect the air that the Intoxilyzer purges, see Brief for Respondents 18-19, but none of these devices has yet received approval from the California Department of Health, see Reply Brief for Petitioner 3-4.
  4. Page 483 The California Court of Appeal expressed some doubt whether respondents Trombetta and Cox were entitled to appeal their suppression orders and ultimately ordered that their appeals be dismissed. 142 Cal.App.3d, at 140, 143, 190 Cal.Rptr., at 320, 323. The court, however, ruled on the merits of their claims and thereby exercised jurisdiction over their appeals. Id., at 144, 190 Cal.Rptr., at 323. As to Trombetta and Cox, the Court of Appeal decision was comparable to a judgment affirming a suppression order, which is reviewable in this Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(3). Cf., e.g., Michigan v. Clifford, 464 U.S. 287 (1984).
  5. Page 484 People v. Hitch involved another device used to measure blood-alcohol concentrations. With that device, a suspect's breath bubbles through a glass ampoule containing special chemicals that change colors depending on the amount of alcohol in the suspect's blood. 12 Cal.3d, at 644, 527 P.2d, at 363-364. In keeping with California procedures, law enforcement officials in Hitch discarded the ampoule after they had completed their testing, even though the ampoule might have been saved for retesting by the defendant. Relying on this Court's decisions in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 153-154 (1972), the California Supreme Court concluded that the Due Process Clause is implicated when a State intentionally destroys evidence that might have proved favorable to a criminal defendant. 12 Cal.3d, at 645-650, 527 P.2d, at 364-370. The Hitch decision was noteworthy in that it extrapolated from Brady's disclosure requirement an additional constitutional duty on the part of prosecutors to preserve potentially exculpatory evidence. See Note, The Right to Independent Testing: A New Hitch in the Preservation of Evidence Doctrine, 75 Colum. L. Rev. 1355, 1364-1368 (1975); cf. United States v. Bryant, 142 U.S.App.D.C. 132, 141, 439 F.2d 642, 651 (1971) (Wright, J.) (Government must make "`earnest efforts' to preserve crucial materials and to find them once a discovery request is made"). For a number of years, there was uncertainty whether the California courts would extend the Hitch decision to the Intoxilyzer. In People v. Miller, 52 Cal.App.3d 666, 125 Cal.Rptr. 341 (1975), a Court of Appeal panel refused to extend Hitch because the Intoxilyzer does not reduce breath samples to a preservable form comparable to the ampoules created with the device involved in Hitch. The Court of Appeal in Trombetta declined to follow Miller, and reasoned that as long as there were other methods of preserving specimens (such as the Indium Tube Kit, see n. 3, supra), the State was obliged to preserve a breath sample equivalent to the one used in the Intoxilyzer. 142 Cal.App.3d, at 143-144, 190 Cal.Rptr., at 322-323.
  6. Page 486 In related cases arising under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, we have recognized that criminal defendants are entitled to call witnesses on their own behalf and to cross-examine witnesses who have testified on the government's behalf. See Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308 (1974); Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14 (1967).
  7. Page 488 We accept the California Court of Appeal's conclusion that the Intoxilyzer procedure brought respondents' breath samples into the possession of California officials. The capacity to preserve breath samples is equivalent to the actual possession of samples. See n. 5, supra.
  8. Page 488 In our prosecutorial disclosure cases, we have imposed a similar requirement of materiality, United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97 (1976), and have rejected the notion that a "prosecutor has a constitutional duty routinely to deliver his entire file to defense counsel." Id., at 111; see also Moore v. Illinois, 408 U.S. 786, 795 (1972) ("We know of no constitutional requirement that the prosecution make a complete and detailed accounting to the defense of all police investigatory work on a case").
  9. Page 489 The Intoxilyzer has also passed accuracy requirements established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the Department of Transportation. See 38 Fed. Reg. 30459 (1973); A. Flores, Results of the First Semi-Annual Qualification Testing of Devices to Measure Breath Alcohol 10 (Dept. of Transportation 1975).
  10. Page 489 The materiality of breath samples is directly related to the reliability of the Intoxilyzer itself. The degree to which preserved samples are material depends on how reliable the Intoxilyzer is. This correlation suggests that a more direct constitutional attack might be made on the sufficiency of the evidence underlying the State's case. After all, if the Intoxilyzer were Page 490 truly prone to erroneous readings, then Intoxilyzer results without more might be insufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979).
  11. Page 490 Respondents could also have protected themselves from erroneous on-the-scene testing by electing to submit to urine or blood tests, see n. 2, supra, because the State automatically would have preserved urine and Page 491 blood samples for retesting by respondents. Respondents, however, were not informed of the difference between the various testing procedures when they were asked to select among the three available methods of testing blood-alcohol concentrations. But see Cal. Veh. Code Ann. § 13353.5 (West 1971) (enacted in 1983) (requiring suspects to be informed that samples will be retained only in urine and blood tests). To the extent that this and other access-to-evidence cases turn on the underlying fairness of governmental procedures, it would be anomalous to permit the State to justify its actions by relying on procedural alternatives that were available, but unknown to the defendant. Similarly, it is irrelevant to our inquiry that California permits an accused drunken driver to have a second blood-alcohol test conducted by independent experts, since there is no evidence on this record that respondents were aware of this alternative.
  12. Page 491 State courts and legislatures, of course, remain free to adopt more rigorous safeguards governing the admissibility of scientific evidence than those imposed by the Federal Constitution. See, e.g., Lauderdale v. State, 548 P.2d 376 (Alaska 1976); City of Lodi v. Hine, 107 Wis.2d 118, 318 N.W.2d 383 (1982).

JUSTICE O'CONNOR, concurring.

Rules concerning preservation of evidence are generally matters of state, not federal constitutional, law. See United States v. Augenblick, 393 U.S. 348, 352-353 (1969). The failure to preserve breath samples does not render a prosecution fundamentally unfair, and thus cannot render breath-analysis tests inadmissible as evidence against the accused. Id., at 356. Similarly, the failure to employ alternative methods of testing blood-alcohol concentrations is of no due Page 492 process concern, both because persons are presumed to know their rights under the law and because the existence of tests not used in no way affects the fundamental fairness of the convictions actually obtained. I understand the Court to state no more than these well-settled propositions. Accordingly, I join both its opinion and judgment. Page 493