Criminal Discovery in Texas—2014: The Beginning of a Brave New World of Fairness

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Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
Criminal Discovery in Texas—2014: The Beginning of a Brave New World of Fairness

On January 1, 2014, discovery in criminal cases in Texas will enter a new era—one in which almost anything the defense wants to prepare its case must be produced by the State. Gone will be the days of dependence on the generosity and charity of the prosecutor. Gone will be the days when prosecutors leveraged discovery availability by requiring defendants to agree to waive other discovery and motion rights. Gone will be the days when prosecutors only allowed a visual inspection of offense reports and witness statements, requiring criminal defense lawyers to take often voluminous notes. Gone will be the days when prosecutors could hide impeaching information pretrial on the theory that disclosure of impeaching information was only required if the case proceeded to trial. The playing field in criminal cases in Texas will now be fairer and much more level as we truly enter the proverbial 21st century.

Senate Bill 1611 (SB 1611), named the “Michael Morton Act,” was sponsored jointly by Senators Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock). They and their staff (especially Brandon Dudley, chief of staff and general counsel, and Megan LaVoie, general counsel) are due much credit for shepherding this momentous legislation and dealing with all of the competing and often contentious interests involved. It unanimously passed both the House and Senate. It was quickly signed by Governor Perry in a public ceremony where it was once again praised as a mechanism to lessen the likelihood of convicting the innocent. Of course, as with most things, how effective its reforms ultimately becomes in lessening the likelihood of wrongful convictions will depend on defense lawyers understanding and taking advantage of it, prosecutors understanding the Act’s requirements and following its rules, and the courts enforcing both the letter of the law and the goals it sought to achieve.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the major changes and to provide guidance to lawyers and judges as they seek to understand and adapt to the changes made by SB 1611 to Tex. Code. Crim. Pro. 39.14.1

Initiation of Discovery

A person charged with a crime2 who wants discovery must ask for it. 39.14(a) provides “as soon as practicable after receiving a timely request from the defendant the state shall produce and permit [discovery]. . . .” By its terms, it requires a request from the defendant, but imposes no requirements on the form the request must take. The request must be directed to the prosecutor as the representative of the State. As a practical matter, these requests should be in writing. The last thing good lawyers want is an argument over the what was orally said, heard, or understood. The request need be nothing more than a letter, though it could also be in the form of a motion, much as many requests for notice of things like extraneous offenses occur today. Though neither permitted, prohibited, nor required by the statute, it would be wise for the request to also be filed with the court and contain a certificate of service. Memorializing the request in this way provides a record and eliminates arguments over whether and when it was received. It would also be wise for counsel to obtain an acknowledgment from the prosecutor that the request was received.

Unfortunately, the statute provides no precise deadline for the State to produce the requested discovery, except to require that it be produced “as soon as practicable.” What amounts to “as soon as practicable” will often depend on what is being requested. Some things like offense reports and witness statements should usually be produced rather quickly—because it is almost always practicable to do so. Other items that may require a prosecutor to obtain them from a law enforcement entity or third party may reasonably take longer. It is likely that most prosecutors will (and should) set up procedures to handle routine items.

It might be beneficial in some cases for criminal defense lawyers to split their requests into multiple requests—segregating the requests by a rough assessment of how quickly the prosecutor might be expected to produce the items requested. Those items likely to already be in a prosecutor’s file could go in one request and items from specific other entities (such as a lab) could be in separate requests.

If you do not ask, you likely will not get discovery, and without a request, the prosecutor has no obligation to produce anything other than items constitutionally required by Brady v. Maryland.

The Form of Discovery Production

Gone are the days of taking notes. 39.14(a) requires the State to “produce and permit the inspection and the electronic duplication, copying, and photographing” of the requested discovery. Defendants now have the right to a copy of the requested discovery and prosecutors are required to provide a copy when requested.

Of course, if all one requests is inspection, which will be appropriate in some circumstances, all one will get is an inspection. For example, if one wants to examine a piece of physical evidence, like a blood tube or a firearm, inspection and photographing may be appropriate while electronic duplication and copying are physically impossible. Lawyers should include in their requests the precise manner of production sought for each item requested. If you want electronic duplication and copying, then specifically ask for it. If you want inspection, then ask for inspection. If you want to photograph, then ask to do so. Lawyers should not, however, simply list every possible method as a preamble to a long list unless each method is appropriate. We should not make prosecutors guess at how the requested items should be produced.

39.14(a) specifically allows that “[t]he state may provide to the defendant electronic duplicates of any documents or other information described by this article.” Basically, this provision shifts the ultimate printing or copying costs to the defendant. It allows the State to scan items, rather than copy them. Though this portion of the statute is permissive, it was sought by prosecutors so that they could choose to provide electronic copies (scanned images) rather than printed copies. Though the costs of paper copies in any individual case are usually de minimus, when those small costs are multiplied thousands or tens of thousands of times, they can become substantial. It is no great burden on the criminal defense bar to print out scanned images. It also saves the time of having to scan them ourselves.

What Can Be Requested and What Must Be Produced

39.14(a) also sets out what can be requested, what must be produced, and the statutory exceptions. It provides for a request for and production of:

[A]ny offense reports, any designated documents, papers, written or recorded statements of the defendant or a witness, including witness statements of law enforcement officers but not including the work product of counsel for the state in the case and their investigators and their notes or report, or any designated books, accounts, letters, photographs, or objects or other tangible things not otherwise privileged that constitute or contain evidence material to any matter involved in the action and that are in the possession, custody, or control of the state or any person under contract with the state.

It is important to break this section down in order to understand each of its component parts. Specifically listed items include “offense reports,” “written or recorded statements of the defendant or a witness, including witness statements of law enforcement officers,” and “any designated books, accounts, letters, photographs, or objects or other tangible things not otherwise privileged that constitute or contain evidence material to any matter involved in the action...”

Importantly, all written statements by a law enforcement officer are included within the statute. Thus, reports that are written wholly and only on internal law enforcement networks (like surveillance logs and reports in many narcotics cases) are specifically included in the definition of witness statements. This statute also puts law enforcement officers on notice that their written statements (like originally hand written notes) must be produced when requested. Gone are the days when one must get a court order compelling production of handwritten notes. It is also arguable that those who destroy their notes, knowing that they must be produced when requested, will have committed transgressions that will serve as the basis for litigation, not to mention comment at trial. Think about the folks at BP who are being prosecuted by the feds for destroying their original writings (text messages and emails), knowing that they might be required in the investigation and litigation.

Of particular importance is the portion of 39.14(a) that provides for production of “designated documents [and] papers...” The “designated” referred to in this language are items designated by the defendant. Thus, almost anything that constitutes a document or paper (and the words must mean something different from each other) is within the scope of 39.14. This includes as much as can be imagined and is specific to the case and will vary greatly from case to case. Common items may include MDT logs, dispatch tapes and logs, 911 tapes, training records, disciplinary records (at least of sustained complaints), personnel records, booking photos, payments to informants, and many more. This allows and requires the defense lawyer to tailor the requests to the specific needs of the case.

Discovery is not limited to what is in the prosecutor’s file. It includes items “in the possession, custody, or control of the state or any person under contract with the state.” Anything held by any law enforcement entity or other political subdivision of the State (basically, any non-federal government entity) is in the possession, custody or control of the State. It also includes items in “the possession, custody or control... of any person under contract with the State.” Thus, when the State contracts with a non-government third party, it remains obligated to produce items from that third party. This most commonly occurs when the State sends biological samples to non-government labs for testing. Bottom line—when the state contracts with a third party, material from the third party becomes discoverable.

Lawyers should not, however, have just one form discovery request that they use in all cases. Asking for DNA or lineup information in DWI cases will do nothing but make the lawyer look lazy and unprofessional. Discovery requests should be tailored to each case, though there are clearly some items that will be requested in almost every case.

Exempted from discovery by this section is the “work product of counsel for the state in the case and their investigators and their notes or report...” This exemption is limited. The item must constitute “work product.” The scope of what is work product is beyond the scope of this article, but notes by a prosecutor in preparation for the case are almost certainly work product.

This exemption is expanded in a later portion of 39.14(a), which provides that “[t]he rights granted to the defendant under this article do not extend to written communications between the state and an agent, representative, or employee of the state.” Nothing in the discovery statute, however, changes the requirements of the Rules of Evidence for production at trial of all statements of any testifying witness. See Tex. R. Evid. 612 (writing used to refresh memory) and 615 (statement of witnesses in criminal cases). Additionally, nothing in this statute affects a trial court’s power under Tex. R. Evid. 705(a) to require pretrial disclosure of the full underlying facts or data on which a testifying expert may rely. Bottom line—the Rules of Evidence still allow for discovery and disclosure of communications between a prosecutor and a testifying witness to the extent that it falls within the scope of the applicable Rule of Evidence.

There is one very significant exception to the work product and agent-communication exceptions. 39.14(h) provides that “[n]otwithstanding any other provision of this article, the state shall disclose to the defendant any exculpatory, impeachment, or mitigating document, item, or information in the possession, custody, or control of the state that tends to negate the guilt of the defendant or would tend to reduce the punishment for the offense charged.”3 Thus, even work product and agent communications must be disclosed if it is exculpatory, impeaching, or mitigating. When a prosecutor or a prosecutor’s investigator takes notes of a witness interview, those notes will ordinarily be work product (unless the prosecutor or investigator may testify, in which case they become witness statements). However, to the extent that anything in those notes is impeaching, exculpatory, or mitigating to guilt or punishment, those portions of the notes must be disclosed. 39.14(h) trumps all other aspects of any limitation in the discovery statute.

Redaction of Material

Not everything is discoverable. 39.14(c) allows redaction in certain circumstances. It provides:

If only a portion of the applicable document, item, or information is subject to discovery under this article, the state is not required to produce or permit the inspection of the remaining portion that is not subject to discovery and may withhold or redact that portion. The state shall inform the defendant that a portion of the document, item, or information has been withheld or redacted. On request of the defendant, the court shall conduct a hearing to determine whether withholding or redaction is justified under this article or other law.

39.14(c) only allows redaction of things that are not subject to discovery under 39.14 (“document, item, or information is [not] subject to discovery under this article.”), and 39.14 only permits a prosecutor not to disclose privileged material. On the other hand, 39.14(c) allows a court to determine “whether withholding or redaction is justified under this article or other law.” Accordingly, it is likely that if some other law completely prohibits disclosure of certain types of information, a prosecutor will be justified in redacting it even if it is not expressly prohibited by 39.14—at least absent some compelling argument by the defense specific to the case. As a practical matter, even if the initial redaction is not justified by the initial clause of 39.14(c), a court, though not required to do so, may be justified in upholding such a redaction.

It is seriously doubtful, however, that this statute will allow the continuation of the practice in some jurisdictions of rou­tinely redacting personally indefinable information such as addresses, phone numbers, driver’s license number, police payroll numbers, and the like. On the other hand, social security numbers are seldom needed by defense counsel and may likely be legitimately (though not required to be) redactable.

Other provisions of the statue dealing with the issue of confidentiality of some personal information make it implicit that such information is initially discoverable by defense counsel—even if there are limits of how and to whom else that information may be disclosed. There would be little point in providing limits on redistribution of such information if the information was not discoverable in the first instance.

Confidentiality of Discovery

Two sections of the new discovery rights create obligations and restrictions on dissemination of the material produced. 39.14(e) is a general provision that applies to any disclosure to third par­ties of the material received from the State. 39.14(f) governs restrictions on disclosure in some instances, of some material, and to some persons on the defense team or witnesses.

As a general rule, 39.14(e) restrictions apply to anyone who is part of the defense team and prohibit disclosure “to a third party [of] any documents, evidence, materials, or witness statements received from the state” unless authorized by court order or when the material has already been publicly disclosed. 39.14(e) provides:

(e) Except as provided by Subsection (f), the defendant, the attorney representing the defendant, or an investigator, expert, consulting legal counsel, or other agent of the attorney representing the defendant may not disclose to a third party any documents, evidence, materials, or witness statements received from the state under this article unless:

(1) a court orders the disclosure upon a showing of good cause after notice and hearing after considering the security and privacy interests of any victim or witness; or

(2) the documents, evidence, materials, or witness statements have already been publicly disclosed.

Bottom line—if you get it from the State as part of discovery under 39.14, you cannot release it to anyone outside the defense team without court permission or unless the material is already public. Examples of material that may already be public includes booking photos and some 911 calls.

39.14(f) contains restrictions on the use and disclosure by the defense team within the case preparation context. It provides:

(f) The attorney representing the defendant, or an investigator, expert, consulting legal counsel, or agent for the attorney representing the defendant, may allow a defendant, witness, or prospective witness to view the information provided under this article, but may not allow that person to have copies of the information provided, other than a copy of the witness’s own statement. Before allowing that person to view a document or the witness statement of another under this subsection, the person possessing the information shall redact the address, telephone number, driver’s license number, social security number, date of birth, and any bank account or other identifying numbers contained in the document or witness statement. For purposes of this section, the defendant may not be the agent for the attorney representing the defendant.

Those on the defense team (excluding the defendant, who may not be an agent of the lawyer for this purpose) “may allow a defendant, witness, or prospective witness to view the information provided under this article, but may not allow that person to have copies of the information provided, other than a copy of the witness’s own statement.” In some instances, such as when a particular location or person’s identity may be a central defense issue, it may be necessary that some material be shared with witnesses in order to effectively prepare for trial. Nothing in 39.14 prohibits such basic case work.

Importantly, nothing in 39.14(f) restricts the dissemination of material to experts retained to consult or testify in the case (the statute distinguishes experts from other witnesses), but it does include such experts as persons subject to the restrictions of the statute. Defense counsel should always expressly inform, preferably in writing, any expert on the case of the terms of 39.14(e) and (f), as the law makes any such person subject to the statute’s restrictions.

On the other hand, 39.14(f) does prohibit some of the information contained in the documents from being shown or disclosed to the “defendant, witness, or prospective witness.” The restricted information under 39.14(f) includes “the address, telephone number, driver’s license number, social security number, date of birth, and any bank account or other identifying numbers contained in the document or witness statement.” The goal of this statute is to prevent such information from being accessible to persons who may use it for less than legitimate purposes related to the case. Normally, this restriction will not present any material difficulties in the handling of the vast majority of criminal cases.

There may, however, be some instances in which disclosure of this restricted information is necessary to fulfill a lawyer’s ethical and constitutional obligations—for example, disclosure of an address or date of birth to a witness to confirm or rebut the accuracy of some case-related issue. While 39.14 contains no specific remedy for such situations, no statute may abrogate the constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. The instances in which this may occur and when such disclosure may be necessary to provide effective assistance of counsel will not be common.

When such situations do arise, however, lawyers ought to consider a sealed ex parte motion to the court seeking judicial authority to make the disclosure. Because the potential good cause for the disclosure will necessarily involve disclosure of case-related strategy issues, as it does with Ake motions, the motion should be ex parte and under seal. If the court grants permission, which it has the inherent authority to do—the statute notwithstanding—to ensure that the statute does not become unconstitutional as applied, the lawyer will have both legal and ethical protection.

Lawyers should be very reluctant to make the decision on their own and ought to seek advance court approval. Though a lawyer’s unilateral decision may ultimately prove defensible, it may also come with some serious pain in defending the decision. Caution is warranted.

Ethical Obligations Exception

Lawyers have certain ethical rights and restrictions on public communications concerning the facts of a case, as provided by the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. 39.14(g) allows a lawyer to communicate in ways that are permitted by ethical rules, with restrictions intended to shield alleged victims and witnesses from excessive, unnecessary disclosure of their identities (except as allowed by subsections (e) and (f)) and iden­tifying information. Basically, it seeks to prevent a situation where prosecutors, law enforcement, or others have spoken publicly about a case and it is necessary, in the course of and to fulfill the goals of the representation, for a lawyer to respond to or rebut such public claims.

The statute strikes a balance by allowing disclosures in such circumstances, as permitted by the Disciplinary Rules, but prohibiting the disclosure of identities—that are not otherwise exempted from restriction by subsection (e) and (f)—and other identifying information. It provides:

(g) Nothing in this section shall be interpreted to limit an attorney’s ability to communicate regarding his or her case within the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Pro­fessional Conduct, except for the communication of information identifying any victim or witness, including name, except as provided in Subsections (e) and (f), address, telephone number, driver’s license number, social security number, date of birth, and bank account information or any information that by reference would make it possible to identify a victim or a witness. Nothing in this subsection shall prohibit the disclosure of identifying information to an administrative, law enforcement, regulatory, or licensing agency for the purposes of making a good faith complaint.

This awkwardly written provision both gives and takes. On the one hand, it recognizes, as it must to pass constitutional muster, that lawyers have both ethical and constitutional duties that cannot be abrogated by statute. On the other hand, it then seems to exempt from the ability to fulfill those obligations the same kinds of information that may be necessary to fulfill a law­yer’s ethical and constitutional obligations.

This section is best viewed as a restriction on general, public communications of specific personal information not otherwise already public that may be allowed by the ethical rules.

Pro Se Defendants

The rules of discovery for pro se defendants are more limited and restrictive. 39.14(d) provides, “[i]n the case of a pro se defendant, if the court orders the state to produce and permit the inspection of a document, item, or information under this subsection, the state shall permit the pro se defendant to inspect and review the document, item, or information but is not required to allow electronic duplication as described by Subsection (a).”

A pro se defendant may not obtain discovery by simply requesting it. It requires a court order. Even with a court order, the State is only required to let the pro se defendant view and examine the material. The State is not required to (though it may) provide electronic or other copies. With pro se defendants who are incarcerated, this is going to present some serious logistical problems, but they are ones that prosecutors and judges will have to work out. It may also have some equal protection issues, but those will have to be sorted out by the courts on a case-by-case basis.

Costs of Discovery

A prosecutor may not charge anything to produce the required discovery and nothing in the statute allows them to do so. However, under 39.14(l) “[a] court may order the defendant to pay costs related to discovery under this article, provided that costs may not exceed the charges prescribed by Subchapter F, Chapter 552, Government Code.” This will require the State to file a motion and obtain an order before any payment for costs of the dis­covery may be imposed. Ordinarily, this should not occur as the cost in seeking a court order for a few dollars in copying costs will most often not warrant the work required to secure the payment. In those rare instances where payment of costs by the defense may be appropriate (a court is not required to order payment of costs—the permissive “may” allows a court to determine on a case-by-case basis whether it is appropriate), the court cannot order any amount in excess of what would be allowed under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA). As a general rule, copy costs are limited to ten cents a page, though there may be other costs as well. The scope of costs allowable under the TPIA is beyond the scope of this article, but counsel faced with such a situation will need to closely examine the TPIA and the state agency rules (Attorney General) applicable to such costs.

Documenting Discovery

39.14 contains specific rules for documenting and memorializing discovery. The goal of these sections was to eliminate hindsight arguments over what was produced by the State or received by defense counsel. 39.14(i) and (j) provide:

(i) The state shall electronically record or otherwise document any document, item, or other information provided to the defendant under this article.

(j) Before accepting a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, or before trial, each party shall acknowledge in writing or on the record in open court the disclosure, receipt, and list of all documents, items, and information provided to the defendant under this article.

39.14(i) is intended to require the State to contemporaneously (either electronically in those jurisdictions that have such systems or otherwise—typically in writing) record and document all discovery provided to the defense. 39.14(j) requires that in every case in which there is a plea or a trial, each party acknowledge disclosure and receipt of a list of the specific items provided. As document retention policies for both clerk’s and court reporters vary, it will be a better practice to have the disclosures made both in writing and on the record. Criminal defense organizations, prosecutors’ offices, and some courts are developing forms that will comply with this statute. Both prosecutors and defense lawyers should obtain and keep a copy of any written record of the discovery.

These requirements will take some getting used to, and are going to increase the paperwork burden, but they are designed to protect prosecutors (from claims of a lack of disclosure), defense lawyers (from claims of insufficient pretrial investigation), and defendants (from deficiencies of both prosecutors and defense lawyers) from fading memories that are the norm once cases are resolved. They are important for everyone, but will only be as effective as they are complete.

As with requests for discovery, no specific form is required, but it was intended to require sufficient detail to allow a third party looking at it (maybe years or decades later) to determine what was produced. For example, merely stating “offense report” is insufficient to protect anyone. A more appropriate description might be “offense report number x, dated y, authored by z and consisting of pages a through b and supplements c through d.” Witness statements should also contain more description than just “witness statements” or even “statement of John Doe.” At the very least, the date of the statement and the number of pages should be included. The degree of detail will depend on the specific item, but all need to keep in mind that if it ever gets looked at, the degree of detail will be directly proportional to the degree of protection provided to the party who needs the records. Lack of detail will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the party needing protection to achieve it. Last, but not least, if the writing is hand written, it needs to be legible.

Brady and the Statutory Brady-like Obligations

Lawyers must be familiar with the requirements of Brady v. Mary­land, which provides that due process requires the State to turn over any exculpatory, impeaching, and mitigating evidence. 39.14, however, goes beyond the requirements of Brady. First, under Brady and its progeny, impeaching material must only be turned over at a time and in a way that allows it to be used effectively at trial. In practice, this has resulted in far too many prosecutors failing to disclose information that is impeach­ing when there is not a trial—even though knowledge of this impeachment material would materially affect a defendant’s decision to accept a plea bargain offer or to proceed to trial. As many prosecutorial leaders have preached for many decades, a defendant is not entitled to a fair guilty plea, just a fair trial. Whatever the merits of that argument, 39.14 eliminates that line-parsing.

39.14(h) provides that “[n]otwithstanding any other provision of this article, the state shall disclose to the defendant any exculpatory, impeachment, or mitigating document, item, or information in the possession, custody, or control of the state that tends to negate the guilt of the defendant or would tend to reduce the punishment for the offense charged.” Imposed on this requirement is the basic requirement of 39.14(a) that disclosures shall be “as soon as practicable.” This requirement eliminates the game playing from withholding impeaching information unless and until a trial occurs. Importantly, impeaching information may include information or documents about an officer’s professional status, pending investigations, unavailability, and sustained grievances. It also clearly includes inconsistent statements from witnesses, at least to the extent that they go to a material issue, which includes credibility. Whether a particular inconsistency might tend to negate the guilt of the defendant will vary from case to case, but a prudent prosecutor should make disclosure of all inconsistencies, and let the chips fall where they may, lest they later be accused of hiding and failing to disclose information required to be disclosed under the statute. Given that the entire purpose of SB 1611 was to require complete dis­closure of anything even remotely favorable and to prevent hid­ing of such evidence, lawyers on both sides and the courts should remain acutely aware of the significant responsibilities of prosecutors to err on the side of disclosure.

39.14(k) also makes it clear that the obligation to make such disclosures in ongoing and is not extinguished by a plea or trial. It provides, “[i]f at any time before, during, or after trial the state discovers any additional document, item, or information required to be disclosed under Subsection (h), the state shall promptly disclose the existence of the document, item, or information to the defendant or the court.” If a prosecutor chooses to make the disclosure only to a court, a curious anomaly in the statute, the court should ensure that the disclosure is also transmitted to the defendant and defense counsel. Anything less would likely render a disclosure to the court alone an ethically prohibited ex parte communication, something prosecutors should also keep in mind in choosing whether to report only to the court.

Discovery Agreements

39.14(n) allows the parties to agree to some discovery and documentation different than the statute requires. It provides, “[t]his article does not prohibit the parties from agreeing to discovery and documentation requirements equal to or greater than those required under this article.” Importantly, it does not allow for agreements that in any way lessen the statutory requirements— only those agreements “equal to or greater than those required” by the statute. Gone are the days when prosecutors could condition discovery on an agreement to forego other discovery or discovery motions.

As a practical matter, this statute allows for the defense to directly obtain discovery of some things independent of the prosecutor. In many jurisdictions, it is common practice for defense lawyers to obtain some governmental and third-party records by issuing a subpoena for those records. This portion of the statute allows for those practices to continue. In large part, this can result in an agreement, even implicitly, to shift the burden of obtaining some items by and from the prosecutor to the defendant. Often, with common items, such as dispatch logs, booking photos, and MDT logs, the work-load tradeoff is beneficial to all concerned and makes the system more efficient. Admittedly, some prosecutors may choose to assume the work-load on themselves.

Interaction with Public Information Act

Some prosecutors, and more frequently other government agency lawyers, assert claims that provision of the Texas Public In­for­ma­tion Act (TPIA) make information confidential and not subject to discovery. Aside from the fact that the TPIA expressly provides that its provisions only apply to public information act requests, 39.14(m) makes this argument untenable by expressly providing that “[t]o the extent of any conflict, this article prevails over Chapter 552, Government Code.”

Important Exemptions from 39.14 Discovery

There is one significant situation in which a copy of discovery may not be obtained. 39.14(a) expressly provides that the discovery rights under 39.14 are, “[s]ubject to the restrictions provided by Section 264.408, Family Code, and Article 39.15 of this code. . . .”

Article 39.15 provides that images of child pornography and material described by Article 38.071 (some pretrial recorded statements of children under 13 years of age in some circumstances) may only be viewed and inspected at a facility under the control of the State and mat not be copied. Tex. Fam. Code § 264.408 provides the same restrictions to child abuse videotape interviews. In such circumstances, 39.15(d) provides that “property or material is considered to be reasonably available to the defendant if, at a facility under the control of the state, the state provides ample opportunity for the inspection, viewing, and examination of the property or material by the defendant, the defendant’s attorney, and any individual the defendant seeks to qualify to provide expert testimony at trial.”

In such circumstances, some courts have allowed transcripts of the videotapes to be prepared for use of the parties, usually with the restriction that they only be used for the purposes of the case and not otherwise. Given that lawyers could hand write every question and answer, verbatim, and thus produce a transcript, there is little practical reason not to allow a professional transcript to be prepared. It makes everything related to those videotapes far more useful for both sides during the course of a trial.

Sanctions for Violation of the State or Discovery Abuse

39.14 contains no express sanctions for the violation by any party of the provisions of the discovery statute. Though potential sanctions (against both sides) were proposed and discussed in the formulation of the legislation, it was ultimately decided that such matters were better not specifically addressed. Frankly, both prosecutors and defense lawyers were leery about the application of express sanction. In the end, the consensus was that since courts already possess the inherent power to order remedial and sometime punitive (non-monetary) sanctions, it was best left to the remedies that already existed rather than trying to write a set of rules or guidelines that could produce unintended consequences for both sides.

Effective Date and Applicability

SB 1611 becomes effective on January 1, 2014. By its express terms it only applies to alleged crimes committed on or after January 1, 2014. Thus, there will be a transition period during which we operate under two sets of discovery rules. Though efforts were made to have these new procedural rules apply to some or all pending cases, the Legislature ultimately decided to make them only prospective to offenses allegedly committed on or after the Act’s effective date.

Conclusion

The provisions of 39.14 are intended to minimize the horror and likelihood of another Michael Morton. They are intended to bring some basic fairness into criminal discovery and to make it less likely that there is ever again such a dehumanizing miscarriage of justice. If used appropriately and effectively, the Act will likely make resolution of criminal cases (either by plea or trial) less problematic and less a guessing game on the part of defendants and their lawyers. The changes usher in a new era that will better enable defense lawyers to provide meaningful advice to their clients and create an opportunity for defense lawyers to more effectively provide constitutionally guaranteed effective assistance of counsel. The system and all of its participants will benefit and be better off both in the short and long term.

Notes

1. References in this article to 39.14 are to the amended version that becomes effective January 1, 2014, unless specifically noted otherwise.

2. It is doubtful that those arrested but not yet formally charged have any discovery rights under the amended 39.14 because they are not yet defendants. By its terms, 39.14 only applies to defendants. Nonetheless, it never hurts to ask, and those wanting discovery before charges are filed lose nothing by asking for it.

3. All emphasis in quoted material is added unless expressly stated otherwise.