U.S. Supreme Court urged to let stand rule limiting prosecutors’ duty to turn over evidence

At stake is whether the constitutional duty to turn over exculpatory evidence extends to plea bargaining. Issue arose in Texas case where prosecutors took guilty plea from defendant without disclosing video cameras in the jail captured a jailhouse scuffle on camera -- contradicting the police account that the defendant initiated the scuffle.

Attorneys for the City of Brownsville, TX, urged the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to leave standing a federal appellate court decision that found no constitutional violation when prosecutors failed to inform defendants of evidence that they are innocent before pleading guilty.

The city’s brief came as a response to the petition of a man who pleaded guilty to assaulting an officer in jail without knowing the jail cameras had captured the incident on camera, creating offered evidence the courts later ruled were proof of his innocence. The video only was discovered years later.

George Alvarez’s December 2018 petition maintains that department’s failure to turn over the video evidence that eventually resulted in Alvarez’s declaration of innocence was a Brady violation of the longstanding holding of Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence. It tasks the Supreme Court with taking up the question of “whether due process requires the government to disclose exculpatory evidence before entering a plea agreement with a criminal defendant.”

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The brief of opposition filed today on behalf of Brownsville urges the Supreme Court to dismiss Alzarez’s petition, claiming, “The en banc Fifth Circuit’s rule that Brady is a trial right and does not extend to the pre-plea phase of a criminal case is sound and should not be disturbed.”

The case has attracted the attention of legal organizations, which have highlighted the potential impact of the decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision.

Brownsville also contended Alvarez failed to meet the benchmarks laid out by law to hold the city accountable because he did not prove the city police officer and municipal policymaker at the time, Chief Carlos Garcia, deprived Alvarez of due process when a detective failed to hand the video over to prosecutors, stating, “The detective whose job it was to submit all relevant evidence to the prosecutor had no involvement in the prosecutor’s decision to submit the charge to a grand jury.”

Alvarez was 17-years-old when he was brought into the Brownsville police station in 2005 for public intoxication and being suspected of burglary of a motor vehicle.

As officers directed him to a padded cell, according to the record, a scuffle erupted between Alvarez and jailers that led to Alvarez facing charges for assaulting Officer Jesus Arias.

Alvarez pleaded guilty in March 2006, and was given an eight-year suspended sentence with the condition he undertake treatment for substance abuse. When Alvarez failed to complete the treatment program, he was imprisoned to serve the eight years.

Three years later videos emerged that conflicted with the version of events told by jailers. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later found Alvarez “actually innocent”. Alvarez in turn sued the city in federal court and won a $2-million jury verdict, plus attorney fees.

The city then appealed to the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which reversed the award and ruled that the law “does not affirmatively establish that a constitutional violation occurs when Brady material is not shared during the plea bargaining process,” setting a limit on the prosecution’s duties outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland.

More than 9 of 10 convictions in the United States result from plea bargaining, which in some cases has resulted in the convictions of innocent people. A nationwide team of reporters examining guilty pleas has been exploring the phenomenon. The team has identified more than 130 cases nationwide in which defendants entered guilty pleas despite significant evidence of their innocence.

Alvarez and his attorneys are now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to step in, stating a “rule that permits the government to suppress exculpatory evidence to encourage an innocent defendant to take a plea deal cannot be squared with due process.”

In the brief filed today, Brownsville attorneys minimized the role of the city in the violation, contending that the chief of police and municipal policymaker could not possibly personally oversee every criminal prosecution to make sure all Brady evidence has been disclosed.

Ultimately, they ask that the Supreme Court not take this case under consideration as one that illustrates the protections needed for disclosure of Brady evidence in plea bargaining stages, especially since they argue that Chief Garcia was not a member of the prosecution.

“At worst, it is a situation where the detective assigned to the case (Carrejo) was negligent in failing to ask jailers whether a video existed and in failing to inspect the cameras himself,” they said.

The district court previously noted that “the official policy of the BPD [Brownsville Police Department] is to provide all evidence, including any exculpatory evidence, to the District Attorney’s Office in all criminal cases.”

Brownsville attorneys added that the solution to making sure innocent people don’t make uninformed pleas would not be to place the burden on police, but instead “It should be up to defense counsel and their clients to determine whether to pursue discovery in advance of a guilty plea.”

(Read our past coverage of the case and other cases where Brady violations have led to convictions: U.S. Supreme Court is asked: Can prosecutors withhold evidence of innocence before guilty plea?)