Monday, April 22, 2019

Maine court expresses frustration with prosecution's cavalier attitude toward duties related to discovery and misunderstanding of duty of candor

This week, I will spend a few class hours discussing the duties of prosecutors and issues related to prosecutorial misconduct.

As I coincindence, over at the Legal Profession Blog, Mike Frisch is reporting about a recent case in Maine which illustrates some of the issues.

In this case, a defendant charged with driving on expired tags made a standard request for any dash cam video of the incident, but the prosecutor never responded nor sought to ascertain whether such video existed.

At trial, the prosecutor only used the officer involved in the case as a witness.  When the officer testified that there was in fact a dash cam video, the court became interested to know why the prosecutor had not bothered to produce it, and "[t]he court’s patience was obviously tried by the State’s continued  insistence that the video showing the alleged crime being committed had no  “evidentiary value.”"

In its order, the lower court rebuked the State for its approach to its discovery obligations and granted the defendant's motion to  suppress.

On appeal, among other things, the State argued that the court abused its discretion in selecting a sanction that effectively ended the  prosecution.  Yet the appeals court did not buy it. The court recognized that various obligations on prosecutors create challenges and that mistakes happen but affirmed that "[g]iven the substantial responsibility placed on the prosecutors to  provide timely discovery,... it is all the more important that the obligation be treated seriously. The court here expressed its frustration with  the State’s cavalier attitude toward discovery in several ways...  The court further noted the State’s persistent and inexplicable failure to recognize the relevance of the video."

Also, the court explained the prosecution's confusion about its duty of candor concluding that "[i]n arguing that the video was not “exculpatory,” and therefore not  discoverable, the State confuses its obligation pursuant to Rule 16(c) with its  obligation pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963):
The due process  concepts articulated in Brady require the State to disclose to the defendant  evidence that is “favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching . . . .” . . . Rule 16(c), in  contrast, requires the disclosure of items, including video recordings, that are  “material and relevant to the preparation of the defense.” . . .   

In conclusion,
What the State seems to miss in the matter before us, however, is  that there is a fine line between inadvertence and practices that the court  described here as “slipshod.” Carelessness in this critical area of constitutional  rights is not acceptable and is not an excuse. Moreover, the State’s continued  insistence that the defendant “suffered no harm” as a result of the State’s failure  to turn over the video of the crime makes it painfully evident that the State still  does not understand the nature of its obligations. 
          . . . .
The State’s continued insistence that the video of the defendant driving by the trooper was not material or relevant defies common sense and provides full support for the court’s determination that a serious sanction was warranted. The suppression of the evidence, while almost certainly fatal to the State’s prosecution, fell well within the discretion of the court. [and, according to the court, the lower court "plainly used the sanction to educate the State that its casual approach to fulfilling its discovery obligation was unacceptable.
The case us called State of Maine v Reed-Hansen, and you can read the opinion here.

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