Monday, March 7, 2016
Texas Disciplinary Rule of Professional Conduct 3.09(d) requires a prosecutor to:
make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense, and, in connection with sentencing, disclose to the defense and the tribunal all unprivileged mitigating information known to the prosecutor, except when the prosecutor is relieved of this responsibility by a protective order of the tribunal.
Rule 3.04(a) requires, among other things, that "a lawyer shall not obstruct another party's access to evidence."
In a highly significant ethics opinion, signed and delivered on December 17, 2015, the Texas Board of Disciplinary Appeals ("BODA") ruled that Rule 3.09(d) does not contain the Brady v. Maryland materiality element, or any de minimus exception to the prosecutor's duty to disclose exculpatory information in a timely manner. BODA also held that Rule 3.09(d) applies in the context of guilty pleas as well as trials. In other words, the prosecutor cannot negotiate a guilty plea without beforehand disclosing exculpatory information to the defense.
The case decided by BODA is Schultz v. Commission for Lawyer Discipline. William Schultz was the Assistant District Attorney in Denton County. He prosecuted Silvano Uriostegui for assaulting Maria Uriostegui, his estranged wife. Maria testified at a protective order hearing that Silvano was her attacker. Schultz never disclosed to the defense that Maria could only identify Silvano by his smell, boot impression, and stature "as seen in the shadow," as it was dark at the time and Maria could not see her attacker's face. Schultz learned this information from Maria one month prior to the trial date. Silvano entered a guilty plea. At the sentencing hearing, Maria testified "that she did not see her attacker's face and that she did not know whether her attacker was Silvano. Maria also testified that she had told the prosecutor earlier that she did not see who attacked her." (With respect to the protective order hearing, Maria "explained that she had testified...that Silvano was her attacker because she had assumed it was him from his smell and boot.")
The testimony at the sentencing hearing was the first time defense counsel Victor Amador learned of the exculpatory information, despite having filed broad pre-trial requests for exculpatory evidence. Amador moved for a mistrial which was granted by the trial court. Amador next filed an application for writ of habeas corpus. The trial court granted habeas relief, allowing Silvano to withdraw his guilty plea. The court also ruled that double jeopardy had attached.
Amador filed a grievance against Schultz with the State Bar, which was the basis of the disciplinary proceeding. Schultz contended that the information in question was neither exculpatory or material. The Commission for Lawyer Discipline disagreed, as did BODA. BODA based its holding primarily on the plain language of Rule 3.09(d) and on commentary to the Rule and to the ABA Model Rule on which Rule 3.09(d) is based. BODA also held that Schultz's failure to disclose the exculpatory information constituted obstruction of another party's access to evidence under Rule 3.04(a). Schultz received a six month fully probated suspension.
The only Texas attorney disciplinary authority higher than BODA is The Supreme Court of Texas. Schultz did not appeal BODA's decision to The Supreme Court of Texas. Thus BODA's decision in Schultz is now the governing ethical interpretation of Rule 3.09(d) in Texas. Ergo, under the McDade Act, it now appears that both state and federal prosecutors litigating in Texas are under an ethical duty to timely disclose to the defense all evidence or information "that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense," irrespective of its materiality. The disclosure must be made prior to any guilty plea.
The defense bar owes a great debt of gratitude to defense attorney Victor Amador, the Committee for Lawyer Discipline of the State Bar, and BODA. It should also be noted that many other jurisdictions have rules containing similar or identical wording to 3.09(d). There is much more work to be done. Hat Tip to Cynthia Orr of Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley for bringing this opinion to our attention.