Your Constitutional Right to Exculpatory Evidence Extends to the Plea Bargain Phase

Posted on Jan 29, 2016 in Criminal Defense

Prosecutors have important ethical duties. Prosecutors should not pursue charges brought against criminal defendants unless there is reason to believe they can prove the defendant broke the law. Prosecutors also have a duty to turn over exculpatory evidence. This duty was established by the Supreme Court in a case called Brady v. Maryland, and the rule requiring prosecutors to turn over this information to the defendant is sometimes called the Brady rule.

Exculpatory evidence refers to all evidence that is favorable to the defendant and could lead to his or her exoneration, avoiding a conviction for the charges altogether.  Impeachment evidence must also be turned over by prosecutors to defendants under the Brady rule.

Defendants need to be able to build a case, and the Brady rule helps ensure prosecutors are not withholding anything. Attorneys at a New Orleans criminal defense law firm can review the evidence that prosecutors turn over under the Brady rule and can help defendants determine how best to present exculpatory information in an effort to avoid conviction.

The evidence can prove invaluable to defendants who take their case to trial and try to avoid a guilty verdict — but what if a defendant is negotiating a plea deal? Do prosecutors have to turn over potentially exculpatory information during plea negotiations?

Do Prosecutors Have to Turn Over Exculpatory Evidence During Plea Negotiations?

The Washington Post recently reported on a case that was decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court that addressed the issue of whether it is a due process violation for prosecutors to withhold potentially exculpatory evidence from a defendant while a plea bargain is being negotiated. The case, Buffey v. Warden, involved a defendant who had taken a plea deal in 2002 for allegedly robbing and raping an elderly woman.

When prosecutors were negotiating the plea agreement with the defendant, they had DNA evidence from a rape kit. The defendant requested this evidence, but prosecutors did not disclose the fact that the DNA did not contain any of Buffey’s DNA.

Unaware of this potentially exculpatory fact, the defendant made his plea agreement with the prosecutor.  The West Virginia Supreme Court, however, determined that it was a violation of due process for the prosecutors to fail to turn over the DNA evidence.  The violation justified the defendant withdrawing his plea.

Although this was a good decision, it applies only in West Virginia — and courts have been split on whether there is a prosecutorial duty to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence during the pre-trial plea bargaining phase.

A Colorado state court established the duty of prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence during plea bargaining as part of the court’s supervisory role of attorney conduct, while the Second, Eighth, and Ninth Circuit Courts have all held that the requirement for prosecutors to turn over evidence during plea bargaining is a matter of constitutional due process.

Because other circuits have split, however, the Supreme Court will likely need to address the question of whether prosecutors have to provide this information at this phase.  A petition has been filed in a case called Charles Ray Hooper v. United States raising this issue, so the Supreme Court may soon weigh in.

Since defendants in Louisiana are protected now, defendants need to make sure they have help during the plea bargaining phase from a criminal defense law firm that can help them determine what plea deal, if any, they should make in light of the evidence available.

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