The First District Court of Appeal in California has upheld a lower court’s dismissal of charges against a man accused of molestation due to prosecutorial misconduct. In the People v. Baldomero Gonzalez Gutierrez, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the state’s obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence to criminal defendants under Brady v. Maryland (1963) applies not just trials but to preliminary hearings also.
The Gutierrez case came about when a Concord man was charged with molesting his two foster daughters. The state failed to turn over evidence that one of the foster daughters had twice previously made false claims about her mother’s boyfriend assaulting her. Once defense counsel discovered the police reports about the previous false claims, the trial judge dismissed the charges against Gutierrez and the state appealed.
On appeal, the Court examined the question of whether a ballot measure passed by the people of California in 1990 – Proposition 115 – means Brady no longer applies to preliminary hearings in the golden state. SFGate reports that the measure “required prosecutors to turn over potentially favorable evidence to the defense only 30 days before trial. It also allowed prosecutors to bypass the previously required preliminary hearing by obtaining a grand jury indictment, and narrowed the grounds for dismissing charges.”
In refuting the claim that Proposition 115 alleviates the state’s Brady obligation at preliminary hearings, the Court cited three California cases : Stanton v. Superior Court (1987) 193 Cal.App.3d 265, Currie v. Superior Court (1991) 230 Cal.App.3d 83, and Merrill v. Superior Court (1994) 27 Cal.App.4th 1586. It found that “[c]ontrary to the People’s argument, nothing in Proposition 115 could supersede the prosecution’s Brady obligation under the United States Constitution.”
In its opinion, the Court noted that the state was unable to produce any cases in California or U.S. Supreme Court law that supported the notion that Brady does not extend to preliminary hearings. When the state cited caselaw from other states that have made findings to the contrary, the Court countered, “we will not follow them, and instead decline to look beyond the dictum in Jenkins that supports Stanton’s, Currie’s, and Merrill’s holdings to the contrary.”
The First District Court’s finding that Brady obligations attach prior to trial is especially important in a criminal justice system that depends on so many cases resolving through plea bargains rather than going to trial.