Neither the New Jersey Code of Juvenile Justice nor the New Jersey Court Rules expressly address discovery in juvenile matters. The absence of express guidance in the statute or court rules recently led to decisions from the Appellate Division and New Jersey Supreme Court that broadened a juvenile’s right to discovery, at least in a relatively narrow – but very serious – class of cases.
Two high school students – CW and DW – got into a fistfight. Someone who was present at the fight had a handgun in his waistband. NH, one of DW’s friends who was also present at the fight, grabbed the gun and shot CW four times. One of the shots was to the back of CW’s head. NH subsequently admitted to possessing and firing the handgun, but claimed that he shot at the ground. At least a portion of the incident was caught on video, and several witnesses provided statements to the police that implicated NH.
The State charged NH in a juvenile complaint with crimes that, if committed by an adult, would constitute knowing and purposeful murder and unlawful possession of a weapon. The State also sought to waive jurisdiction of the case from the Family Division, Juvenile Part, to the adult criminal part of the Law Division. In connection with this motion, the State submitted a statement of reasons, provided the juvenile with limited discovery, and represented that it had no exculpatory evidence.
NH moved for full discovery prior to the waiver hearing, and the Juvenile Part judge granted this request. The State then appealed this decision to the Appellate Division. There, the State argued that the case was still in the pre-waiver and pre-indictment stages. In the State’s view NH was not entitled to full discovery because the case was still in a preliminary stage. Rather, the State asserted that it was only required to disclose exculpatory material, and material the State would rely upon to meet its minimal burden of probable cause at the waiver hearing. (Put somewhat differently, the State did not believe it was required to disclose very much, if anything, to the defense.) As the Appellate Division correctly noted, this position made the State the sole arbiter of what discovery the defense would receive. NH argued that the filing of a juvenile complaint was the functional equivalent of an indictment, that the proceedings had therefore reached a critical stage, and the notion that the State can determine what discovery the defense receives defied applicable cases, past practice, and common sense.
After observing that the juvenile justice code and court rules were basically silent on discovery in juvenile cases, the Court noted that the State customarily opened its file to the juvenile in matters such as this one. Further, although discovery in juvenile cases had been self-regulating, this was no longer the case and, in the absence of a statute or rule, judicial intervention was required.
First, the Court recalled the State’s argument that the only discovery needed to be produced at the waiver hearing was that required to meet the probable cause burden, and that the State could unilaterally decide what discovery would be produced in this regard. In rejecting these arguments, the Court observed that the proceedings had reached a critical stage with significant consequences based on the filing of the complaint, alone. The Court also stated that as a general matter, “‘liberal’ discovery is the rule and … ‘limited’ discovery is the exception.” For these reasons, the Court affirmed the juvenile judge’s decision to grant defense counsel’s application for full discovery.
The State sought further appeal and the Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court added that the State could always apply for a protective order to prevent disclosure of particular items if it believed that was necessary. The Court also noted that the broad discovery was required in connection with the waiver hearing because more was at issue than a finding that there was probable cause to believe that the juvenile committed an offense within the purview of the waiver statute. The trial court also had to find that the prosecutor did not abuse their discretion when considering the statutory factors requisite to a decision to seek a waiver. Full discovery at this critical stage would allow the juvenile and their attorney to prepare fully for every aspect of the waiver hearing.
It is beyond dispute that these are great decisions since they require the prosecutor to provide the juvenile and their attorney with full discovery at what is undeniably a critical stage of the proceedings, and this discovery will assist defense counsel in preparing for a very significant hearing (A murder conviction in the juvenile court carries a 20-year sentence. The sentence for a murder conviction in the adult criminal court can range from 30 years to life). These cases also establish that the State is not the arbiter of what discovery will be provided, and when it will be released to defense counsel, particularly in cases involving serious charges such as murder. However, and as all three courts involved in this case observed, there are no rules for discovery in juvenile cases. Discovery, to date has been relatively informal, and a matter of custom. It may be that we have moved beyond that point, and that it is time for the appropriate practice committees to propose rules for juvenile discovery. If this happens, such rules should be drafted in light of the Appellate Division’s observation that liberal discovery is the rule, while limited discovery is the exception.
James S. Friedman, LLC represents juveniles charged with crimes in the Superior Court, Family Division, Juvenile Part in Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Mercer County, Essex County, Morris County, Union County, Hudson County, Passaic County, and all other counties in New Jersey. The firm also represents juveniles who seek to appeal a finding of delinquency to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. If you or someone you know has been charged as a juvenile with criminal offenses, contact the firm to discuss the case and plan your defense.