Discovery – Prosecutor’s Duty to Disclose

Stephen Howard — Stone River Law

Real Experience. Real Results.

Discovery – Prosecutor’s Duty to Disclose

Getting It Right – State v. Knight

Prosecutors in some Utah jurisdictions incorrectly attempt to use language from the Utah Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in State v. Knight to justify their failure to fulfill discovery obligations in criminal prosecution cases. A common prosecution response to a defense discovery request may begin with language like this:

The XYZ prosecutor hereby denies the defendant’s request for discovery is hereby denied, pursuant to State v. Knight, 734 P.2d 913 (Utah 1987). The prosecution will, however, provide copies of pertinent documents reflecting only what is contained in the prosecution file. Other documents may or may not exist in individual police agency files, and the defendant is instructed to contact these agencies for such information. The XYZ prosecutor’s office will strictly comply with the requirements of Rule 16 of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure

A response like this often reflects a profound misapplication of the ruling in State v. Knight, fails to acknowledge the duties imposed on prosecutors by the due process provisions of both the Utah State Constitution and the United States Constitution, and further suggests an incorrect understanding of the basic requirements of Utah’s Rule 16.

Constitutional Rights or Procedural Rules?

The Utah State Constitution and the United States Constitution both contain important due process protections that impose certain obligations on prosecutors in connection with the criminal discovery process and the government’s duty to disclose information, evidence, and other materials. Rule 16 of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure contains other important provisions. But a procedural rule cannot be interpreted and applied in a manner that overrides the constitutionally mandated responsibilities of a prosecutor.

Below are summary statements outlining controlling law (appellate case law and court rules) on the issue, along with citations to the relevant legal authority.

  1. A “prosecutor must disclose to the defendant . . . material or information . . . of which the prosecution team has knowledge or control . . . including . . .digital media recordings . . . [and] all evidence favorable to the defendant. . . .” Utah R. Crim. Pro. 16(1).
  2. The prosecution’s failure to disclose “evidence favorable to an accused” violates a defendant’s due process rights.” Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963).
  3. Failure to disclose such evidence violates a defendant’s due process rights “irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.” Id.
  4. “[T]he duty to disclose favorable evidence encompasses both exculpatory and impeachment evidence.” Tillman v. State, 2005 UT 56, ¶27 (citing United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 676 (1985).
  5. When the reliability of a witness is at issue, “nondisclosure of evidence affecting credibility [of such witness] falls within this general rule.” Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 154 (1972).
  6. The duty to disclose favorable evidence exists “regardless of whether the evidence has been requested by the accused.” Id. (citing United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 107 (1976).
  7. “The duty to disclose favorable evidence is implicated even if the evidence is known only to police investigators and not the prosecutor.” Id. (citing Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 438 (1995).
  8. “Information known to police officers working on a case is charged to the prosecution since the officers are part of the prosecution team.” State v. Shabata, 678 P.2d 785, 788 (Utah 1984) (citation omitted).
  9. “[T]he presentation of known false evidence is incompatible with ‘rudimentary demands of justice.’” Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 153 (1972) (quoting Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, 112 (1935)).
  10. Similar incompatibility exists “when the [prosecution], although not soliciting false evidence, allows it to go uncorrected when it appears.” Giglio, 405 U.S. at 153 (quoting Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264, 269 (1959)).

What the Prosecution Team Knows….

In fulfilling their legal obligations relating to discovery, the best prosecutors understand that they have a duty to know what the entire prosecution team knows. “[I]nformation known to any part of the prosecution team is charged to the prosecutor. . . . [A] prosecutor’s good faith ignorance does not excuse nondisclosure. If any weight were given to good faith ignorance, it would only encourage after-the-fact justifications for nondisclosure.” State v. Knight, 734 P.2d 913, 918 n. 5 (Utah 1987) (emphasis added).