Pretrial Discovery Requirements and Violations of Those Rules in Florida Criminal Trials

You have certain rights when you stand trial in Florida, and the state has many procedural obligations. Full vindicating your rights means, among other things, knowing all of those prosecutorial obligations, correctly identifying violations when they occur, and taking the proper steps to act once a violation has been identified. That requires having diligent and detail-oriented counsel on your side. To ensure you are fully protected when you are on trial, you should speak to an experienced Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer about your case.

One place where parties have substantial obligations – and where violations can have significant consequences – is pretrial discovery. A recent burglary case from Tampa shows what should happen when the state doesn’t meet those requirements.

T.M., a juvenile, was on trial for the crime of “burglary of an occupied dwelling,” which is a felony. During the trial, the prosecution called two Hillsborough County Police officers as witnesses – the author of the police report and the officer to whom the juvenile allegedly confessed to the crime.

During pretrial discovery, the state disclosed both officers as witnesses. Nevertheless, the defense spotted a problem and objected when the second officer began testifying about T.M.’s confession. The defense argued that the prosecution never handed over the juvenile’s confession and, while it disclosed the officer as a witness, it did not inform the defense of her role in obtaining T.M.’s confession.

On the other hand, the prosecution argued that listing the officer on the witness list and handing over the police report were enough to satisfy its obligation under the rules.

The trial allowed the officer to testify and T.M. ultimately was convicted. That conviction did not survive an appeal.

The appeals court explained that the non-disclosures about which the defense objected were clear violations of the rules. Juvenile proceedings operate under their own set of procedural rules. One of those, Rule 8.060(a)(2)(A)(i) requires the prosecution not only to disclose the identity of “witnesses who were present when a recorded or unrecorded statement was taken from or made by the child,” but also to “separately” identify them within the witness list. Rule 8.060(a)(2)(C) obligates the state to disclose “the substance of any oral statements made by the child…, together with the name and address of each witness to the statements.”

(As a side note, Florida’s Rules of Criminal Procedure, which would have governed had T.M. been a legal adult, impose virtually identical disclosure obligations on the state. Rule 3.220(b)(1)(A)(i) requires the state not only to name witnesses “present when a recorded or unrecorded statement was taken from or made by a defendant or codefendant,” but also specially identify those witnesses in the list. Rule 3.220(b)(1)(C) requires prosecutors to hand over written statements, recorded statements, or the content of oral statements made by the defendant, as well as the names and addresses of all the witnesses to those statements.)

Simply listing the officer’s name within the overall body of the witness list was not enough, according to the court.

What Happens When the State Commits a Discovery Violation?

Florida law dictates that, if a trial court becomes aware of a discovery violation, it must convene something called a “Richardson hearing.” (Named after the landmark 1971 Florida Supreme Court case of Richardson v. State.) During this hearing, the trial judge does several things. One, he/she must ascertain whether the violation was inadvertent or intentional, whether or not the violation was substantial, and whether the violation was harmful or harmless.

In deciding the harmful-or-harmless question in a Richardson hearing, the judge must determine “whether there is a reasonable possibility that the discovery violation” altered the defense’s trial preparation. Unless the error was proven beyond a reasonable doubt not to have affected the defense’s preparation may the judge rule it to be harmless.

In T.M.’s case, the appeals court pointed out the possibility of harm. Had defense counsel known the substance of the officer’s testimony – and that it was undeniably the heart of the state’s case – the defense could have taken more aggressive steps to impeach the officer, investigated the possibility that the officer coerced the confession, or even put T.M. on the witness stand.

The knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. are experienced across a wide array of criminal matters. We are former state prosecutors who understand all the machinations that lead up to a criminal trial, including how law enforcement officers work and how prosecuting attorneys approach cases. Whether it is getting the charges dropped, negotiating a plea agreement, or defending you at trial, we fight successfully for the people of Tampa Bay every day. To find out more, call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your free initial consultation.

Contact Information