In a criminal case, defendants have a constitutional right to information from the government. This is accomplished through the discovery process, where the prosecutor produces evidence to the defendant. This may include police reports, photographs, videos, witness statements, cell phone records, forensic exams, and other information.
This rule applies to materials within the possession of the government. As the National Crime Victim Law Institute explains, the process is different when a defendant seeks information from a non-party, such as the victim in a criminal case. In these situations, a skilled Irvine victims’ rights attorney can help to defend your privacy and protect you from fishing expeditions into your personal life.
This issue arises in a variety of cases, particularly when an individual is accused of a crime involving sexual or domestic violence. For example, in a sexual assault case, a defendant may seek the records from a rape crisis center to attempt to prove that the victim has told an inconsistent story. Alternatively, a defendant might try to obtain a victim’s mental health or medical records to show that she has difficulty discerning fact from fiction or that she is unable to accurately recall events.
The United States Supreme Court has addressed this issue in Pennsylvania v. Ritchie. In that case, the defendant George Ritchie was charged with sexually abusing his minor daughter, who reported the abuse to Children and Youth Services (CYS). Ritchie sought the CYS records, and CYS refused to disclose them other than to the trial court. The trial court did not turn them over to Ritchie, and the case went to trial. Ritchie was ultimately convicted.
On appeal, the United States Supreme Court determined that refusing to disclose the records did not violate Ritchie’s right under the Confrontation Clause. Because the trial court did not limit his attorney’s ability to question the victim or any other witness, this right under the Sixth Amendment was not violated. However, the Supreme Court did determine that Ritchie’s due process rights may have been implicated. It found that in situations where a state agency other than the prosecutor holds relevant records, the court must review the records to determine if it should be disclosed.
While this case may seem favorable to defendants, it still limits the type of information that can be produced. First, this ruling only applies to records held by public (government) agencies — not to those held by private parties, such as hospitals or therapists. Second, in order to have the court conduct a review of these materials, the defendant must prove that the records sought are material to the case. Third, even if the records are material (relevant to the guilt, innocence or punishment of the defendant), they may still not be disclosed if they are subject to privilege. For example, if a victim went to a rape crisis center that is run or funded by the government, records of her visit may be material — but under state law, they are likely also privileged, and cannot be disclosed.
In many cases, only the victim can assert her or his privilege against disclosing these types of records. That is why it is vital to have a seasoned Irvine victims’ rights attorney to represent you. Not only will having your own lawyer protect your interests throughout the criminal justice process, but it may also aid in the prosecution of the person who harmed you.
As former prosecutor, attorney Michael E. Fell spent years representing the state in a range of criminal cases. He now exclusively works with California crime victims, standing by their side throughout the criminal justice process. Contact Justice 4 Crime Victims today at 949-585-9055 or firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free initial consultation with an Irvine victims’ rights attorney.