Discovery Violations by Prosecutors and Richardson Hearings in Florida

Many procedural details go into the pretrial, trial, and post-conviction phases of presenting a defense. It is important to have a Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer who is fully immersed in the knowledge of all of these details, as any one of them may be the key you need to a dismissal, an acquittal, or a reversal of your conviction.

One area where that’s especially true is the rules regarding discovery violations.

As an example of how important a prosecutorial discovery violation can be, we have this recent drug case from Lee County.

The incident began when local deputies responded to a 911 call in Lehigh Acres. A detective came to the scene and interviewed the male resident of the property, J.Y., three times. During one of those interviews, J.Y. expressed to the detective an interest in “helping himself out in the future and possibly becoming an informant.”

At the trial, the prosecution introduced the statement to the detective offering to “help himself” by becoming an informant. The defense lawyer immediately recognized this statement as something that had not appeared in the prosecution’s discovery disclosures and objected.

Generally, the law requires the prosecution to disclose to the defense the evidence it plans to use at trial, including statements by the accused, comments by eyewitnesses, etc. If the state introduces into evidence a statement like J.Y.’s informant offer and had not previously included that in its discovery disclosures to the defense, that is a discovery violation.

The defense asked the judge to instruct the jury that the statement was effectively untrue. The trial judge decided to give the jury a different curative instruction: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will rely on your own common sense and observations of the witness’s testimony, as well as the ability of the — both direct questions and cross-examination questions to highlight what may be accuracy or inaccuracy in any witness’s statement.”

When that happens, defense counsel ideally will object, move for a mistrial, and — if the court denies both — ask for a Richardson hearing. This hearing takes its name from the 1971 Florida Supreme Court case of Richardson v. State, in which the high court said that trial courts are required to hold Richardson hearings any time they are “alerted during a criminal trial to a possible discovery violation by the State.”

When a Richardson Hearing is Required

There are several elements in that decision worth highlighting. One is that an actual violation need not have occurred, the trigger is that the court discerns that a possible violation has happened. Two, the trial court must hold a Richardson hearing every time this trigger occurs. That means that the defense is not required to affirmatively ask for a Richardson hearing; the trial judge must conduct the hearing even when the defense fails to make such a request.

At the hearing, the trial judge is required to decide: (1) whether the violation was accidental or willful, (2) whether the violation was “trivial or substantial,” and (3) the extent to which the violation impaired the accused’s ability to prepare for trial.

If an inadequate Richardson hearing occurs — or no hearing at all takes place — the appeals court must grant the accused a new trial if it decides that “there is a reasonable possibility that the discovery violation procedurally prejudiced the defense.” The law places upon the state the burden of showing that the violation was harmless and the defense encountered no such prejudice.

In J.Y.’s case, the state lacked that kind of persuasive proof that the violation was harmless, meaning that the law required the appeals court to conclude that the violation was not harmless and the accused was entitled to a new trial.

In Florida, the penalties for drug crime convictions are especially harsh and can have life-altering consequences. To protect yourself, you need skilled legal counsel with a complete knowledge of the facts of your case and the law. The experienced Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. are former prosecutors who have handled thousands of drug cases and have the knowledge necessary to pursue the best possible outcome available to you. To find out more, call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your free initial consultation.

Contact Information