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May 17, 2010

New York Courts Again Misconstrue The Prosecutor’s Obligations

By Michael H. Joseph

In general prosecutors have an obligation to disclose to New York criminal defense attorneys, information which tends to establish the defendants’ innocence or undermine the State’s case. Unfortunately the New York Court of Appeals in People v. Fuentes restricted the right of New York criminal defense lawyers right to obtain material which undermines the case against their clients.

This ruling will undoubtedly encourage Prosecutors to withold information that undermines the case against criminal defendants and completely undermining the intergrity of criminal trials. In this blogger’s opinion, the New York Courts are misconstruing the federal caselaw.

Judge Jones, the dissent in Fuentes was correct. In general Appellate Courts essentially forgive a failure to disclose unless a document is ” Material”. Material means there must be “a reasonable possibility” that its disclosure would have affected the outcome of the trial. In Fuentas, the defendant was charged with rape and the defendant claimed that the sexual activity was consentual. A record which was withheld from the defense, i.e., a record of a psychiatric consultation which contained information concerning the condition of the victim during her examination following the incident. The victim expressed feelings of depression, suicide, family problems, mistreatment by her mother, withdrawal and substance abuse. Clearly, these raised issues as to the complaining witness’ credibility and the fact that she had recently used drugs was relevant, but the Court to protect a conviction at all costs held that it wasn’t material. The Court made this decision even though New York criminal Courts have routinely held that non-disclosure of psychiatric problems justifies a reversal.

Michael Joseph is a New York criminal defense lawyer with offices in Manhattan and White Plains.

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