Criminal justice reform in New Jersey is now two years old. As we gain more experience with the underlying rules and procedures, it is worth reviewing whether they are achieving their stated goals and the effect they are having on our criminal justice system. State v. Hyppolite, recently decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court, discusses the State’s discovery obligations prior to a detention hearing, and what happens when the prosecutor fails to meet it.
Hyppolite stemmed from a shooting and homicide in Jersey City. The police identified Michael Gregg as a witness and interviewed him on two separate occasions. Gregg gave his first statement shortly after the shooting, and said that he heard three to four shots but did not see the shooter. Some months later, he gave a second statement where he, among other things, identified the defendant as the shooter. The defendant was arrested and charged with murder and weapons offenses, and the probable cause affidavit submitted in support of the complaint stated that he was positively identified as the shooter by an eyewitness. The State moved for pretrial detention, and produced by way of discovery materials regarding Gregg’s second statement, but failed to provide any information concerning the first statement. The Court ordered the defendant to be detained.
The State subsequently produced additional discovery after the defendant was indicted, including materials concerning Gregg’s first statement, recordings of interviews of other alleged witnesses which contradicted Gregg’s version of events, and an application for a communications data warrant for Gregg’s phone. This was the first time defense counsel received this material. Counsel moved to re-open the detention hearing. The trial court denied the application, and the Appellate Division denied leave to appeal The Supreme Court, however, granted leave to appeal.
The Court ruled that when exculpatory evidence is disclosed after a detention hearing, trial courts should use a modified materiality standard in deciding whether to reopen the hearing. If there is a reasonable possibility (as opposed to reasonable probability) that the result at the hearing would have been different had the evidence been disclosed to defense counsel, the trial court should reopen the hearing. Against this backdrop, the Court reversed the trial court’s determination(s) and remanded the case with instructions to reopen the detention hearing.
The Court then reviewed some of the the basic procedures for detention hearings, and discussed application of the new standard. When the State seeks pretrial detention, the prosecutor must provide defense counsel with all exculpatory evidence no later than 24 hours before the hearing. A defendant can move to reopen a detention hearing anytime before trial. The requirement to produce exculpatory evidence is grounded in the State’s affirmative obligation to disclose evidence favorable to the defendant. Further, evidence is generally viewed as material is there is a reasonable probability that it would have changed the result of a proceeding had it been disclosed to the defense. In the circumstances presented by this case, however, the Court viewed the standard of reasonable possibility as better suited to this situation, and as more lenient to the defense. It placed the burden on the State to demonstrate that a new detention hearing was not required, and the hearing would be reopened if the State could not meet that burden. Defendants would not be required to demonstrate that they reasonably would have prevailed at the prior hearing. Additionally, if a trial court found that a prosecutor engaged in willful or egregious misconduct by intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence, the Court indicated that the matter should be referred to the Office of Attorney Ethics.
The matter at bar was based heavily on the statement of a single witness (Gregg), who identified defendant as the shooter. Gregg’s second statement where he made this identification was, however, undermined by his prior statement where he said he did not see the shooter, and by other discovery that conflicted with his version of events, all of which could be used for impeachment. Defendant was entitled to the chance to use the previously undisclosed evidence to rebut the presumption of detention.
Criminal trial attorney James S. Friedman, Esq., is centrally based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and represents criminal defendants in the New Jersey Superior Court in all counties, all New Jersey municipal courts, the New York State trial courts in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the federal district courts in New Jersey and New York City. If you have a criminal case in one of these courts, contact Mr. Friedman immediately to discuss your case and learn about your options.