New York's imbalanced discovery law
Tuesday, May 16 marks New York’s official Discovery Reform Lobby Day, where defense organizations and respected legal groups will call for the repeal of our state’s restrictive discovery statue, dubbed “The Blindfold Law.”
The Blindfold Law allows prosecutors to withhold police reports and other vital information from the defense team until the day a trial begins. Under current law, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is even allowed to deny you the right to know who is accusing you of a crime. New York is one of only four states in the country that operates this way. It’s time to make our courts more efficient and fair.
When New York first looked at its unjust pre-trial discovery laws in the 1970’s, some labeled our state’s provisions “the worst in the country.” Four decades later, not much has changed.
New York’s come a long way with criminal justice reform, but our archaic discovery laws are holding us back. This seemingly granular provision could affect anyone at any time. Without timely access to witness information, or even the name of your accuser, how can a defense team adequately prepare for trial? Even in a monetary dispute that goes to court you are given this basic information. However, in criminal court where your freedom could be on the line, you’re out of luck.
The procedures governing pretrial discovery in New York differ by county. Since every county inconsistently enforces discovery laws, how the statute is interpreted is entirely dependent on the whims of each District Attorney. If you are unlucky enough to find yourself accused of a crime in Manhattan, you might have an uphill battle to prepare for trial. However, if you’re accused of the same exact crime in Brooklyn, the playing field is a little more level. No one’s access to a fair trial should be reliant on what side of the river their courtroom is on.
It’s clear that Manhattan is an outlier in a growing trend towards granting the accused the right to access vital information that could impact the outcome of their case. Providing this information would help defendants fairly weigh a plea offer, or develop a trial strategy. In the most extreme of cases, it could prevent an innocent person going to jail for a crime they did not commit.
Because of our broken system, the odds are stacked in favor of one side: the prosecution. Under New York law, prosecutors are permitted to practice "trial by ambush" by springing this information on the defense right before trial. The initial decision of what evidence to release, and when, rests almost exclusively with the prosecution. If and when this is challenged, receiving evidence in a timely fashion is often bogged down by formal request filings and motions, resulting in millions of wasted taxpayer funds.
Almost all cases end in plea bargains. In fact, 97 percent of federal and 94 percent of state cases resulted in a plea deal before trial. An innocent person can sign away their freedom because the evidence that could exonerate them is withheld. They are simply left in the dark to make a life-changing decision. As such, the Bar Association has characterized New York’s criminal justice system as a "system of pleas,” not trials.
Those who support the status quo cherry-pick doomsday examples of witnesses being put at risk by having their names exposed if fair, open-file discovery becomes law. However, there is little evidence that supports these fears from the many states and jurisdictions that have implemented a just discovery system. As it remains, New York is the one putting our citizens at risk by upholding the Blindfold Law.
Momentum and justice are on our side as New York explores options to change its imbalanced discovery law. Manhattan deserves a court system that works – one that prioritizes fairness and facts over the prosecution’s number of pleas or convictions. If we believe in the promise of innocent until proven guilty, then evidence should be shared equally in the name of justice.
Dan Quart is a New York state Assemblyman representing the 73rd District in Manhattan. Joseph Lentol is a New York state Assemblyman representing the 50th District in Brooklyn.