Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Having too much information can be hazardous

Brian P. Fox is a student at Notre Dame Law School, not an actual lawyer. He has studied criminal law and criminal procedure but he has not practical experience dealing with them on a day-to-day basis. He spends his time studying and answering questions posed in the Socratic method from his law profs. He doesn't spend his mornings in the courthouse or his afternoons at the county jail with his clients.

Yet Mr. Fox is convinced that open-file policies in criminal cases are bad. In Mr.Fox's world, open-file policies are bad for defendants and even worse for criminal defense attorneys. You see, Mr. Fox knows better than you or me how to do our jobs most effectively. Oh the arrogance of youth.

The first thing Mr. Fox does is tell us that open-file policies won't prevent prosecutorial misconduct. He makes reference to the Duke lacrosse case and points out that even if prosecutors were required to make their files available to the defense, those prosecutors who were bound and determined to hide something would continue to do so.

And that's fair enough. We have an open-file policy in Harris County (as do many counties throughout Texas) and it certainly doesn't stop the Harris County District Attorney's Office from concealing potential Brady material.

But then Mr. Fox goes off the deep end. He tells us he's concerned with the workloads and low pay of public defenders. He tells us that if the state were required to make their files available to the defense that these poor, overworked souls would be swamped with mountains of evidence to sift through when putting their cases together. Really?

The problem for public defenders isn't having too much material to sift through. The problem is having too many case files thrown on their desks because the state or the county doesn't want to pay more money to defend those folks accused of committing crimes. Remember, indigent criminal defendants aren't a key demographic in anyone's election strategy.

At the same time Mr. Fox is telling us that it's too much work for public defenders to have to deal with open-file policies, he's also telling us that such policies would reduce the number of cases that are resolved with plea bargains and that it would burden the courts and prosecutors with more trials. His fear is that someone who did something bad might escape punishment because no one has time to deal with him.

Should Mr. Fox ever deign to join us in the trenches he will quickly find that we don't concern ourselves with the cost to the state of going to trial. How much extra work a prosecutor has to do to get ready for trial doesn't concern us, either. Our only goal is to provide as vigorous a defense for our clients as we can - nothing else matters.

If open-file policies would lead to more trials and fewer plea bargains, then maybe that's a good thing. Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to be tried by a jury of their peers. If the state can't handle the burden of additional trials, then perhaps someone should take a long, hard look at how charging decisions get made in the prosecutor's office.

Perhaps the strangest of Mr. Fox's arguments is that the rules for how we conduct criminal prosecutions are tilted heavily in favor of the citizen accused. Yeah, just let that assertion soak in for a moment.

He points to the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure, the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination and the burden of proof carried by the state is making his assertion. If Mr. Fox had any experience defending criminal cases he would know what a joke each of those so-called protections is in real life. If he had any experience he would know that the Fourth Amendment is but a shadow of itself these days. He would understand that judges have a hard time excluding evidence they know will prove the defendant guilty. He would understand how little jurors really understand the presumption of innocence and what it means to prove someone guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.

But, hey, being a contrarian is all the rage these days - particularly when one hasn't got a grasp on the reality of the topic he's writing about.

1 comment:

REvers said...

He'll be a judge sooner rather than later. Which, I suppose, is the intent of writing that article.