How Common is Prosecutorial Overreach in the United States?
Our mission is to help those who have been accused or convicted of a crime get back on their feet. If this is you, you know that this is an uphill battle. There are forces in this world that are hellbent on keeping you down. Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions, one of these forces is the prosecutor’s office themselves.
Prosecutorial overreach runs rampant in U.S. courts, both at the state and federal levels. Law enforcement and prosecutors perceive the need to play tough to build cases and secure convictions. While being tough to get results may be part of their job descriptions, many fail to recognize that playing fair is also their duty.
The Brady Rule
Criminal law provides for crucial procedures and rights designed to provide the accused with the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial, in conjunction with the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th amendments. When prosecutors decide to take a win-at-all-costs mentality, they are tempted to cheat, or at least cut corners. When they cheat, they violate defendant’s constitutional rights. Unfortunately, this results in many defendants being convicted of crimes they did not commit – or the punishment won’t fit the crime.
One of the most common forms of prosecutorial overreach is a violation of the Brady rule. This rule requires prosecutors share any exculpatory evidence with the defense. Exculpatory evidence, which shows a defendant’s innocence, usually winds up in the hands of prosecutors as a result of law enforcement investigations. For example, a police report of a witness’s description of a suspect that does not match the defendant would be exculpatory. When prosecutors fail to turn such a piece of evidence over to the defense, they violate the Brady rule.
Judge Says Brady Rule Violations Are Epidemic
In 2013, the Chief Judge of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski, wrote in a judicial opinion, “There is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land.” The judge went on to say he believes judges must work harder to stop these violations. In the case, he wrote the opinion for, prosecutors failed to turn over information that the scientist who conducted forensic testing in the case had a history of providing wrong information in criminal law cases, including intentional misconduct that resulted in the conviction of innocent people.
Prosecutors Facing Little Oversight
Part of the problem stems from the fact that prosecutors face too little oversight. As the system works, prosecutors have the discretion to decide what qualifies as exculpatory. Since they are under high pressure to win cases, there is a tendency toward bias in making these determinations. When courts find that prosecutors have withheld exculpatory evidence, prosecutors rarely face serious consequences.
Overreach from a prosecutor, whether from a Brady violation or other misconduct, greatly diminishes defendant’s rights to a fair trial. Defense attorneys work hard to keep prosecutors honest by demanding all exculpatory evidence, and when exculpatory evidence is withheld, they demand the dismissal of wrongful charges.