In January 2010, new rules were enacted [PDF] in Connecticut ostensibly in an effort to do away with problematic “open file”1 policies of prosecutors and to ensure that all individuals charged with crimes in the State of Connecticut had ready, Constitutionally required access to the evidence the prosecution claimed to have2.
Each court here in the State was its own fiefdom prior to this change. In some jurisdictions you’d get all discovery on the first court date, without even having to ask, and in others the only way you’d get to see a police report is if you sat in the prosecutor’s office and read it – and perhaps copied it by hand – while they stood over your shoulder. Some jurisdictions would give you whatever you wanted and others wouldn’t give you what you were entitled to.
The system was a mess. Prosecutors in certain jurisdictions kept two files: one their public “open file” and another, their real file. Guess which one had all the relevant documents and information in their possession and which one didn’t.
This is an issue of Constitutional importance because integral to our system of justice is the right to notice: to be informed of and aware of the charges, allegations and supporting evidence so that one may properly defend against them.
However, even with the enactment of these rules making uniform the disclosure of discovery, there was a big problem that was overlooked as part of the compromise. The discovery rules prohibit giving copies of the documents, reports, statements and records to the person with the greatest individual stake in the outcome of the case: the accused.
In order for the man charged with the crime to be able to get his own copy of the allegations and peruse them at his own leisure, the prosecutor must permit and barring that, a judge.
Many in the defense bar argued back then that this was problematic and once again last week, the problem erupted again.
Unsurprising to most, the practice of permitting defendants to have a copy of their own discovery is just as arbitrary and haphazard as it was before the rule changes.
Some prosecutors office routinely grant the requests and some offices routinely deny. Some judges grant in all cases while some judges change their tune depending on the position of the prosecution and even then not always so.
So we end up with a patchwork system of discovery denial and defendants throughout the state have different access to their own discovery than their cell mate, all depending on which jurisdiction they’re in.
It is incredibly hard to explain to a person accused of serious crimes by the state that:
- You are in possession of witness statements that implicate him and police reports that tie it all together;
- But you cannot give it to him.
- He can read it in front of you, but he cannot take it with him.
- He must rely on his memory in a correctional institution to recall all the details and to become well-versed with his own case, because he is not allowed to have any participation in the defense of his liberty and freedom;
- Especially when his cell-mate has 3 boxes of legal materials.
As numerous ethics opinions and judicial decisions have affirmed, the file and everything it contains does not belong to a lawyer. It belongs, unmistakably, to the individual party. Lawyers aren’t even parties to the criminal case.
There is no legal basis for withholding these documents from the individual, who must feel like he is intentionally being kept in the dark and blocked from the process of justice.
If the client demands of you, the criminal defense attorney, that he receive a copy of his file, I am unsure that you can refuse. It certainly would be a greater concern of mine that I might be held in violation of the rules of professional conduct than a judge or prosecutor getting upset with me that I flouted a Practice Book rule.
It is a ridiculous burden to place on criminal defense attorneys and yet another sign of how the business of our justice system is conducted in full view of and in full neglect of the individual charged with a criminal offense.