Criminal defendants whose cases involved a cooperating witnesses will not have access to files from unrelated prosecutions involving the same witness, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled.
A unanimous Supreme Court decided Tuesday in State of New Jersey v. Hernandez that the defendants’ request to access investigative materials, tapes, recordings and other discovery information from cases that involve the same cooperating witness, but were otherwise unrelated, was too broad, and could put the witness’s safety at risk.
The decision reversed a ruling from the trial court, which was later affirmed by the Appellate Division.
Although the defendants had argued the evidence could lead to significant information about their cases, Justice Barry T. Albin said the defendants’ claims were too speculative.
“Defendants have not made any showing that the witness has made false criminal accusations against others what would entitle them to scour through nine banker’s boxes of unrelated investigations in which the witness has cooperated,” Albin said. “An open-ended search of unrelated investigative files in the hope that something may turn up that has impeachment value is not sanctioned by our discovery rule or jurisprudence.”
According to Albin, the defendants, Lixandra Hernandez and Jose G. Sanchez, face numerous charges related to cocaine distribution after they allegedly sold the drug to a cooperating witness who was working with law enforcement.
The cooperating witness, Albin said, had agreed to work with law enforcement in exchange for having some gang-related criminal charges against him dismissed.
Hernandez and Sanchez were given the name of the witness, his criminal history, his cooperation agreement, and copies of recordings involving the defendants. However, after it was revealed the witness was involved in other cases, the defendants demanded prosecutors turn over information related to other cases.
The trial court conducted an in camera review, and then determined that, although the information was not relevant or admissible in Hernandez or Sanchez’s cases, the evidence was discoverable because it might lead to relevant information.
The Appellate Division affirmed the order, concluding that “discovery is rationally related to defendants’ right to confront a key state witness as to potential bias, prejudice or motive and is relevant for that purpose.”
Albin, however, said the lower courts’ rulings expanded the discovery rules.
Albin said disclosing the information could put the witness at risk, and noted that prosecutors already have a burden to disclose any information that could exonerate the defendants.
Albin further said the defendants have made speculative arguments “hoping to snare some morsel of information that may be helpful to the defense.”