The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anyone accused of a crime has a right to see all the evidence that police and the government have that it tends to make the accused seem more innocent. That was 57 years ago, in 1963.
The Court doubled down 22 years later, insisting on the accused’s constitutional right to see everything that might hurt public confidence in a guilty verdict if the public ever got a chance to see it.
But in case after case across the country, prosecutors often ignore these rulings and many police organizations strongly oppose many attempts to obey them.
Juries often not told who is really on the witness stand
A recent investigative report by USA TODAY featured a man pulled over in Houston for one missing license plate. He says he easily passed a sobriety test because he was stone-cold sober.
He spent the next 11 years in prison. The jury heard about the arresting officer’s sustained experience giving sobriety tests, and about the accused’s two previous DWIs.
But they were not told that the officer’s file with the Houston PD included 35 incidents of misconduct. They included DWI arrests he used to score overtime pay for days spent testifying before juries.
Lists of problem officers may help maintain justice
Defendants and defense attorneys have a right to know if officers involved in their case have behaved in ways that might make a conviction look crooked. Such behavior might include lying, falsifying evidence or bias against, for example, people of the defendant’s race.
Concerned that the involvement of such officers might sink their cases, some prosecutors keep lists of them. These lists of do-not-call officers are “Brady lists,” referring to the 57-year-old Supreme Court decision, Brady v. Maryland. Some prosecutors even make the lists available to the public, sometimes with at least some indication of the officer’s misdeeds.
Why make them public? As a former New Orleans police commissioner explained, “A police officer’s value in the criminal justice system is their ability to tell the truth … If they can’t do that, one of the fundamental building blocks of criminal and civil justice is lost.”
Some police unions, prosecutors and others vehemently object. They say officers should have the same rights as other members of the community, and those should include the right to confidentiality at work and due process before adding their name to a list of workers with blemishes in their personnel file.