Maine’s Law Court Slaps Down State’s Cockeyed View of Discovery Obligations.
Posted by Edmund R. Folsom, Esq., April 19, 2019
DISCLAIMER: The following is not legal advice. It is not intended as legal advice and should not be taken as legal advice. I offer it to potentially aid understanding only.
In State v. Reed-Hansen, 2019 ME 58, issued April 16, 2019, Maine’s Law Court upheld the suppression of video evidence as a sanction for the State’s failure to provide it to the defendant on written request. The case addresses the State’s cockeyed view of its discovery obligations; a view apparently endorsed through appeal by the Attorney General of the State of Maine.
Reed-Hansen was charged with operating a motor vehicle after revocation, Class C. The charge arose from Reed-Hansen’s traffic stop by a Maine State Police trooper for an expired inspection sticker. Early in the court process, Reed-Hansen’s lawyer filed a written discovery request, under M.R.U.Crim. P. 16(c), for all video and audio recordings created as part of the traffic stop. Although the trooper’s dash camera recorded the events, the D.A. did nothing to determine whether any recording existed and therefore did not provide the recording to Reed-Hansen in response to his discovery request. A couple of months after the request was made, the Court held a hearing on Reed-Hansen’s motion to suppress evidence. At that hearing, Reed-Hansen asserted that the officer did not have constitutionally-required reasonable articulable suspicion to stop him, and he asked the Court to suppress all the evidence gathered as a result of the stop. The trooper testified that he noticed Reed-Hansen’s inspection sticker was expired as they passed each other, driving in opposite directions, each traveling roughly 50 mph.
During cross-examination, Reed-Hansen’s attorney asked the trooper if he recorded the events. The trooper testified events were recorded by his dash camera. At that point, the Court recessed the proceedings so the parties could address the discovery issue the trooper’s testimony raised. The trooper quickly located the recording, and both attorneys reviewed it and then described what it showed to the judge. Reed-Hansen’s attorney asked the judge to grant his motion to suppress as a sanction for failing to turn over the recording when he requested it. As background, discovery Rule 16(c) requires the State to provide items a defendant requests that are “material and relevant to the preparation of the defense.” The Rule also requires the State to respond to the defendant’s request “within a reasonable time.” Although the ADA acknowledged that Reed-Hansen requested the video in writing and that the D.A.’s Office did not provide it and did not inquire to determine whether it existed, the ADA insisted this did not amount to a discovery violation. The ADA’s position was that nothing in the video was exculpatory, so it had “no evidentiary value,” therefore no harm came from failing to provide it and there was no violation of Rule 16(c). The judge had a serious problem with the ADA’s claim that there was no evidentiary value in the video. After all, it showed events at the exact moment the officer purportedly formed reasonable articulable suspicion for the stop and it showed Reed-Hansen driving a vehicle, which was relevant to Reed-Hansen’s operating after revocation charge. To drive the point home to the ADA that his failure to discover the video’s existence and turn it over to Reed-Hansen upon request was, in fact, a discovery violation, the Court granted Reed-Hansen’s motion and suppressed the evidence. This effectively terminated the prosecution, because it left the State without any evidence to use at trial. The ADA wanted to appeal.
In Maine, when a D.A.’s Office wants to appeal a ruling on a motion to suppress evidence that leaves them unable to proceed with a prosecution, they are required to seek permission from the Maine Attorney General’s Office. In State v. Reed-Hansen, the Attorney General approved the appeal. The D.A.’s Office appealed to the Law Court, arguing: (1) failure to provide the video in response to the defendant’s written request was not a discovery violation, and (2) even if was a discovery violation, the judge exceeded his discretion when he issued his extreme sanction, granting the motion to suppress. By approving the appeal, the highest law enforcement officer in Maine, the Attorney General, in effect backed the D.A.’s position that failing to turn over a video recording of the events underlying Reed-Hansen’s criminal charge in response to Reed-Hansen’s written discovery request was no discovery violation at all. Thankfully, the Law Court rejected this view.
The Law Court chided the State for insisting throughout appeal that its admitted failure to comply with Rule 16(c) was no discovery violation in the first place. The Court was not impressed with the State’s argument that video capturing the moment the trooper purportedly developed reasonable articulable suspicion for the stop and showing the defendant committing the alleged crime had “no evidentiary value.” The Law Court held that the video was “material and relevant to the preparation of the defense” within the meaning of Rule 16(c). The Court also found a sufficient basis for a ruling that failing to turn over the video violated the State’s constitutional Brady obligations. As to the trial judge’s granting of the motion to suppress, the Law Court agreed that the sanction was extreme, but pointed out that what the A.D.A. tried to pass off as mere inadvertence might justifiably be viewed as “slipshod” practices. And, the Law Court said, “the State’s continued insistence that the defendant ‘suffered no harm’ as a result of the State’s failure to turn over the video of the crime makes it painfully evident that the State still does not understand the nature of its obligations.” It was within the trial judge’s discretion to grant the motion to suppress, for the “instructional value” the ruling might have for the State.
If it were otherwise, how far might we be from allowing ADA’s to review video/audio of events underlying a criminal charge, determine there’s no evidentiary value in it for the defense, and simply choose not to turn it over in response to a written discovery request? Hey, as long as the D.A. makes the determination in good faith, what can the problem be, right? May State v. Reed-Hansen prove to be instructive. Again, Maine’s Attorney General approved of this D.A. pressing his warped view of discovery obligations to the State Supreme Court. That is reason to be afraid.