What is a Motion to Compel Discovery in Federal Criminal Cases?
The discovery process is one of the most critical aspects of the pre-trial phase, especially in federal criminal cases. During discovery, both sides are required to share their evidence to help each other prepare for trial.
If you're accused of a federal crime, the discovery phase is where your attorney receives critical information to help design your overall defense strategy. However, one or more parties occasionally drag their feet when turning over discovery materials. Your attorney may file a motion to compel discovery at times like these.
If the court grants the motion, the judge will order that the appropriate materials be released on a plan of sanctions such as fines, suppression of evidence, and even a dismissal of the charges.
Simply put, a motion to compel is a formal request to the judge in a criminal case to intervene in the pre-trial discovery process and order the government to hand over evidence it intends to use at the trial.
In a criminal case, defendants are legally entitled to receive certain documents, recordings, photographs, and other evidence in the possession of the federal prosecution and law enforcement.
As noted, this occurs through the discovery process. Mainly, this involves the prosecution turning over evidence to the defense, but sometimes, the prosecution can also request discovery from the defense.
Federal criminal cases often have numerous defendants, multiple criminal counts charged by the government, and extensive investigation by federal law enforcement agencies, which can last years and involve sophisticated techniques such as wiretaps, electronic surveillance, undercover operations, and the involvement of cooperating witnesses.
Thus, the amount of discovery materials turned over that must be reviewed by a defendant and their attorney can be substantial. Let's examine this topic in more detail below.
The Role of Discovery in the Legal System
The discovery process is a cornerstone of transparency and fairness in legal proceedings. Its primary function is to prevent "trial by ambush" scenarios where one party presents previously undisclosed evidence at trial, catching the other party off-guard.
Discovery ensures that both the prosecution and defense are privy to the same evidence pool, enabling both to prepare adequately for the trial.
In a federal criminal case, discovery typically begins after a defendant's arraignment. The federal defense lawyer and prosecutor might sign a discovery agreement that lays out the deadlines for the prosecutor to disclose the types of discoverable material, which are often close to the trial date.
Many defense lawyers will negotiate for early disclosure to give them sufficient time to review the documents and other disclosures to prepare for trial.
However, criminal discovery in federal cases will typically vary by jurisdiction and type of case. Sometimes, the federal prosecutor will send the opposing counsel hard paper documents, but electronic communication or CDs are now more common.
Notably, there are situations where there is sensitive information or vulnerable witnesses. Thus, a prosecutor might not produce actual documentation; they will require the lawyer to review the information at the prosecutor's office.
Motion to Compel Discovery - Explained
A motion to compel discovery is a legal document filed by an attorney requesting the court to force another party or parties to comply with the rules and requirements of discovery.
It is used primarily when someone is perceived to delay or resist a request for discovery materials. In essence, it's your lawyer's way of ensuring that all crucial evidence is shared between both sides in preparation for trial.
The nature of the motion and its arguments are contingent on the case's specifics, such as the type of evidence in question and which parties are refusing to cooperate. The types of materials commonly requested in discovery include:
- Interrogatories: Written questions drafted by the opposing attorneys must be answered in writing under oath.
- Requests for Production: Requests for tangible evidence such as physical items, documents, electronic data, financial records, photos, videos, or audio recordings relevant to the case.
- Depositions: A pre-trial process in which an individual is sworn in and asked pertinent questions about the case from the opposing sides' attorneys—their answers captured on video or documented by a court reporter.
What Are the Factors for the Motion to be Granted?
When filing a motion to compel discovery, your attorney must demonstrate two crucial elements listed below:
- The other party has unreasonably delayed or refused to comply with its discovery obligations;
- The information requested is essential to your defense. Your lawyer must also include a specific request for what materials must be released.
What Are the Scenarios for Filing a Motion to Compel Discovery?
The timing for filing a motion to compel discovery and the scenarios under which it can be used is not set in stone. Generally, it comes into play after an initial discovery request has been ignored, inadequately addressed, or objected to by the opposing party.
However, the types of information obtained through this motion vary, ranging from witness statements and physical evidence to expert testimonies and reports.
It should be noted that privileged information, such as attorney-client communications or self-incriminating evidence, is exempted from discovery.
Notably, discovery in federal criminal cases is typically more than one exchange at the arraignment. Instead, the discovery production will continue throughout the case and even into the trial.
Thus, a federal defense lawyer must closely monitor any potential abusive discovery practices by the prosecutor and voice any suspicious practices with the federal judge.
What Happens If the Motion is Granted?
If the court grants your attorney's motion to compel discovery, the other party must comply with the judge's order and supply the requested materials within any deadline specified.
If they fail to do so, sanctions can be issued in varying levels of severity depending on how egregious their noncompliance was. Such sanctions may include contempt of court citations, fines, suppression of evidence, or even dismissal of the charges against you.
What Happens if the Motion is Denied?
If the court denies your motion to compel discovery, the opposing party is not obligated to provide the requested materials. Your attorney must either accept this decision or appeal it and continue pursuing the material through other legal channels. A judge might deny a motion to compel for several reasons, including:
- The requested information was not essential to the case.
- The opposing party already produced the requested material.
- The motion did not specifically name what materials were being sought.
- The motion was unsupported by law or the evidence provided.
- The requested discovery would violate attorney-client privilege.
Federal criminal discovery can be a complex issue as it's not uncommon for prosecutors to not always comply with all the rules.
Our federal criminal defense attorneys know how criminal discovery works and how to get crucial information on your case. Contact our law firm for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.