by Danielle Wild, 2015 J.D. Candidate at Syracuse University College of Law and Intern at Easton Thompson Kasperek Shiffrin LLP
Yesterday, the New York Court of Appeals decided People v. Garrett, holding the People did not commit a Brady violation when they failed to disclose that a federal civil action had been brought against one of their police witnesses.
Mark Garrett was convicted after a trial by jury of two counts of murder in the second degree. In addition to circumstantial evidence connecting Garrett to the crime, the People presented evidence of his confession. Garrett maintained that his confession was false and coerced by the interrogating detectives.
In a CPL 440.10 motion to vacate his judgment of conviction, Garrett claimed the People committed a Brady violation by failing to disclose to him the federal civil rights action that had been filed against one of the interrogating detectives. The complaint alleged that the detective had coerced a confession in an unrelated arson case. The Court of Appeals disagreed.
In an opinion written by Judge Abdus-Salaam, the majority determined that, although the civil allegations were favorable to Garrett, given his own allegations that the detective coerced his confession, Garrett had not met his burden of proving the remaining elements of a Brady claim—i.e. that the People suppressed the information or that he was prejudiced by their non-disclosure.
First, the majority held the People had not suppressed the information because they had neither actual nor constructive knowledge of the civil allegations against the detective until after their Brady obligations had ceased.
Although the civil complaint was filed and answered more than a month before Garrett’s arrest, the files related to the civil case were sealed until after Garrett’s trial and sentencing had concluded. Given that, the majority concluded that the People adequately proved they had no knowledge of the allegations until after sentencing, at which time they were not obligated under Brady to disclose the information.
Yesterday’s decision therefore does not foreclose a defendant from arguing the People have an obligation to disclose civil allegations against a police witness if those allegations were unsealed prior to the defendant’s trial or sentencing.
(The majority did, however, explicitly reject Garrett’s argument that a prosecutor has a duty to ask his police witnesses whether any allegations were pending and a duty to conduct a cursory search through court dockets for any such allegations.)
When considering whether the People were imputed with constructive knowledge, the majority addressed several case-specific factors before holding they were not.
First, the civil allegations against the detective did not arise out of the detective’s investigation of Garrett’s case but instead arose out of the detective’s alleged misconduct in an unrelated case. The majority made clear the People may be imputed with knowledge of any “bad acts” engaged in by a police officer during the course of his investigation of a defendant’s case.
Second, according to the majority, the allegations were only collateral to Garrett’s case, at best, to the extent they may have provided him with impeachment material.
Third, the majority emphasized that Garrett only argued that the detective’s knowledge of the allegations against him were attributable to the prosecutor; he never alleged that imputation derived from the knowledge of any other police officer or member of the prosecution team. This suggests that the holding may have been different if Garrett offered proof showing that a government agent other than the detective against whom the allegations were filed knew of the allegations.
Notwithstanding the suppression prong, the majority held that the undisclosed evidence did not meet the materiality standard required under Brady because Garrett previously tried and failed to admit similar impeachment evidence against the detective at both the suppression hearing and at trial—i.e. evidence that another interrogating detective had participated in case involving a false confession. Both the suppression court and the trial court sustained objections to the line of questioning based on relevance grounds. It seemed unlikely to the majority that Garrett would have had greater success with admitting the evidence at issue.
Again, this leaves open the possibility that a defendant may be successful in establishing prejudice and materiality if the suppression court or the trial court, in its discretion, allows similar impeachment evidence to be admitted.
Moreover, the majority admitted that the Court has never squarely addressed whether inadmissible evidence may be considered material under Brady if it could lead to admissible evidence, recognizing that some federal courts have held that it may. Since Garrett failed to show what, if any, admissible evidence disclosure of the allegations against the detective would have led to, the majority again avoided addressing the issue.
Admissibility aside, the majority noted that the impeachment value of the undisclosed civil allegations was minimal at best because another interrogating detective gave corroborating testimony as to the voluntariness of and circumstances surrounding Garrett’s confession.
In the absence of such corroborating testimony, a defendant may be able to demonstrate the requisite prejudice and materiality to satisfy the third prong of a Brady claim.
Chief Judge Lippman wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Judges Smith and Rivera, agreeing with the majority that the civil allegations against the detective were not material under Brady. However, they disagreed with the majority’s suppression analysis and would have held that the detective’s knowledge of the allegations pending against him should be imputed to the People because, as a member of the prosecution team, he had an independent obligation to disclose impeachment evidence. Further, they believed that the majority erred in considering the materiality of the evidence in their suppression analysis.
Judge Smith also wrote a separate concurring opinion, joined by Judge Pigott, questioning whether the Court was even able to consider the materiality prong of the Brady claim given that the County Court did not consider it when it denied Garrett’s CPL 440.10 motion.