Discovery in New York State criminal cases has long been completely unfair to defendants. The New York discovery rules have not been substantially revised since 1979. More than a dozen reform bills that have been introduced over the last 40 years have been successfully blocked by the State’s district attorneys’ association which has argued, among other things, that providing information concerning witnesses places them in danger.
What little discovery was available in New York included something called a “People’s Voluntary Disclosure Statement”. This basically useless document, which was just a couple of pages in length, was composed of a set of questions and responses drafted by the district attorney’s office with the goal of providing as little case-related information as possible. Because of the lack of meaningful discovery, motion practice was similarly laughable. Defense attorneys would typically file an omnibus motion at the beginning of the case seeking every conceivable form of pretrial relief without really knowing what was needed for their case. Given the absence of information that could be obtained through meaningful discovery procedures, such a motion could not be tailored to the specific needs of a particular case and did little, if anything, to create a record for appeal.
Most criminal cases do not proceed to trial. In fact, between 95 and 100 percent of all criminal cases nationally resolve by way of plea deal. Under the prior New York rules, district attorneys were able to withhold information from defense counsel until just prior to trial. This created two problems. First, defense attorneys were forced to negotiate and evaluate plea offers with virtually no information. Defendants were, therefore, placed in the unenviable position of making major decisions concerning their cases with little, if any, information regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the People’s case. Additionally, if the defendant decided to proceed to trial, counsel would be forced to work through the majority of their trial prep time without important information that could form the basis for investigation of the underlying facts, effective cross-examination of witnesses, and viable defenses.