Massachusetts Court Discusses Prosecution’s Obligation to Provide Police Officer Personnel Files

The job of a Massachusetts prosecutor is to seek the truth, not merely to pursue a conviction at all costs. However, in reality, there are social and professional pressures placed upon prosecutors to obtain convictions, and it is not unheard of for prosecutors to turn a blind eye to evidence that would tend to exonerate a defendant. Thus, in the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court held that a prosecutor in a criminal case must disclose all exculpatory evidence in its possession to the defense.

Over time, the Brady rule has expanded to include evidence that is relevant to “guilt or punishment,” as well as evidence that is in the control of other closely aligned government entities. Indeed, Massachusetts Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 14 requires the disclosure of “any facts of an exculpatory nature.” However, determining exactly what is “exculpatory” can be difficult, especially if the defendant is not entitled to otherwise view the evidence.

One area that is frequently the subject of litigation is the personnel files of police officers. This evidence can be compelling if it shows that an officer involved in an arrest has been subject to disciplinary proceedings in the past. However, this evidence is not generally discoverable unless it is relevant. Thus, courts typically review the evidence in-camera, and then determine if it should be provided to the defense. A recent appellate decision in a Massachusetts gun case illustrates the difficulties defendants sometimes have in obtaining the personnel files of police officers.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was arrested for the unlawful possession of a firearm and related charges. The defendant asked that the prosecutor handling the case provide him with any evidence concerning whether any of the officers involved in the case ha been “admonished, disciplined, investigated, [or] reprimanded.” The judge granted the motion, instructing the prosecutor to “personally looking through [internal affairs division] materials, personnel files of this officer, and finding out from supervisors whether there’s anything of that nature.” The files were not in the prosecutor’s possession, but were with the internal affairs division.

The prosecution filed an appeal, arguing that the judge’s order required the prosecutor to review and potentially provide evidence that was not in her “possession, custody, or control.” The appellate court agreed, noting that when a defendant seeks evidence that is not in the prosecutor’s possession, the proper procedure is for the defendant to request the judge subpoena the records from the appropriate department or entity. However, if the prosecution has records that may generally be under another entity’s control, the prosecution must provide them to the defendant under the normal discovery procedures.

Have You Been Charged with a Massachusetts Crime?

If you have recently been charged with a Massachusetts crime, contact Attorney Patrick J. Murphy. Attorney Murphy is a dedicated Boston criminal defense attorney with extensive experience handling all types of criminal cases, ranging from first-time misdemeanor offenses to serious sex crimes. To learn more about how Attorney Murphy can help you defend against the charges you are facing, call 617-367-0450 to schedule a free consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Court Reverses OUI Conviction Based on State Trooper’s Conflicting Testimony, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published February 13, 2019

Judge Deems Questionable Breathalyzer Results Are Inadmissible, Resulting in the Dismissal of Thousands of Massachusetts DUI Cases, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published January 29, 2019

Contact Information