What Is Discovery in a California Criminal Prosecution?
Many defendants who are facing criminal charges in California have never been through the court process and are typically overwhelmed and confused about what will happen next.
Anyone who is facing felony charges will often find their freedom is a stake and should know the basics on common terms that will be used throughout their case.
Having a general understanding of criminal court process can help a defendant overcome some the stress frequently associated with facing criminal charges.
A crucial part of this process is known as “discovery.”
In simple terms, "discovery" is the:
- process where evidence is exchanged;
- between the prosecutor and criminal defense attorney;
- prior to court or trial.
The exchange of evidence is a crucial component of a criminal investigation and trial preparation.
It provides relevant information that allow both sides to prepare their case strategy. It helps both the defense and prosecution reach a reasonable decision on how to handle the case.
Even more important for the defendant, discovery is critical for a criminal defense lawyer to make the decision on how to prove their side of the case in court.
California discovery laws are designed to provide a fair criminal justice system that mandate a timely exchange of all information that was gathered by law enforcement and investigators in order to prosecute a criminal case.
To give readers a better understanding of discovery in criminal cases, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers are providing an overview below.
What Are the Types of Discovery in California Criminal Cases?
In a criminal prosecution, discovery can include a wide range of items that are often crucial for your defense, such as:
- all the hard evidence in the case, such as physical evidence;
- exculpatory evidence that could be favorable to your defense;
- witness statements and depositions from police.
A “deposition” is way to find out what type of testimony a witness will say at a trail. It's transcribed by a court reporter while the prosecutor and attorney are present.
Discovery also includes any lab reports that might include fingerprint or DNA analysis, or any other reports connected to evidence that was analyzed.
Discovery also includes:
- any video or audio evidence that might have been obtained from a law enforcement surveillance operation, such as;
- a phone tap, or video from an alleged drug buy, and
- any crime scene pictures.
Discovery also include police reports from the initial call that started the investigation and any follow up reports from a detective, such as witness interviews.
All the discovery material will be specific to the crime you were charged with. In most cases, you are entitled to know head of time about all the evidence that will be used against you to support the charges.
What Is the California Criminal Discovery Process?
When you appear for your arraignment, the prosecutor is required to provide a copy of the criminal complaint and turn over all discovery on the case to your lawyer, who will then review it and discuss the contents with the defendant.
Typically, this initial discovery packet only includes:
- the police report, and
- your criminal record.
Your criminal defense lawyer will often make a request to receive any additional discovery material.
The criminal discovery court process is a crucial step for your defense lawyer to obtain evidence that might help them challenge the charges against you.
Once your arraignment has been completed, then your lawyer will review the discovery packet provided by the prosecution in order to find out if there are any missing items.
In some cases, your defense attorney will send an informal discovery request to the prosecutor on the case asking for specific items.
Common items on these type of discovery request include:
- the initial 911 call to police,
- audio witness interviews,
- supplemental report from police detectives, and
- any other type of relevant information that the prosecution or police may have in their possession.
It should be noted the exchange of discovery is not an option. The prosecution is legally required to turn over any and all relevant discovery material to the defense lawyer.
In a situation where the prosecutor has relevant evidence they don't intend to use against you, they are still required to turn it over to the defense side.
Of course, this would also include any existing exonerating evidence that might be favorable to your defense.
In some large-scale fraud cases, discovery material could be so large that it will require experts to examine all the material.
This means the criminal discovery process could take many months or longer in order to give the defense lawyer sufficient time to examine it.
What is a Formal Discovery Motion?
In situations where the prosecutor fails to turn over certain requested items, then your criminal defense lawyer can file a “formal discovery motion” with the court.
The judge who is assigned to your case will listen to verbal arguments from the prosecutor and defense lawyer about the missing discovery that was previously requested.
After arguments, the judge will then make a decision on whether the defense lawyer is entitled to receive the requested discovery.
If they decide in your favor, the judge will order the prosecutor to turn over the specific discovery that was the issue of the hearing.
If the prosecutor still fails to turn over requested discovery, the judge could:
- impose sanctions on the prosecutor, and
- might even decide to place limitations on what evidence can be presented at your trial.
What Items are Excluded in the Discovery Process?
It should be noted there are some specific items of evidence that can't be obtained through the normal criminal discovery process. This means your criminal defense lawyer will have to use process of issuing a criminal subpoena or a subpoena duces tecum.
For instance, there are some cases that might require a review of medical documentation where the prosecution won't have direct access to this type of evidence.
In such a situation, your defense lawyer will issue a subpoena to the healthcare agency to obtain the documents.
If you were charged with a crime like assault with a deadly weapon where there are alleged injuries to the victim, it might be necessary to:
- issue a subpoena directly to hospital,
- to get records of any treatment the victim may have received.
If you are charged with a felony crime, the judge could decide your defense is not entitled to all requested discovery to proceed with the preliminary hearing.
In some cases, your defense can only obtain some specific items if the judge decides to hold you over to answer for the criminal charges you are facing.
Get Help From Our Criminal Defense Lawyers
The discovery process helps make the criminal justice system transparent is designed to ensure fair criminal court proceedings by allowing each side prepare their case.
Without discovery, it would seriously undermine your right to due process.
Discovery allows your defense to aggressively challenge evidence and increases the chances that exculpatory evidence will be taken into consideration.
In other words, criminal discovery laws in California help ensure a fairer legal system and is absolutely a critical step in your case.
If you have been accused of crime, call our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers to review the case and options.
Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-ranked criminal defense law firm located at 1875 Century Park E #705, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
We also have an office at 14401 Sylvan St #112 Van Nuys, CA 91401. Contact us for a consultation at (310) 328-3776.
Related: Circumstantial Evidence