For years, the court-appointed lawyer would appear in court to read the police report which he would then laboriously write down in his notepad. This elaborate discovery process meant tax-paid hours for lawyers to hand-write reports which today can be transmitted electronically and at virtually no cost. The Travis County district attorney's office has taken this quill-and-ink criminal procedure directly into the electronic age, saving time and money, and ultimately contributing to justice.
In leading the way on this cost-saving measure, Lehmberg also reaffirmed the fundamentals of our system and demonstrated confidence in the quality of her prosecutors. A prosecutor whose sole aim is to see justice is done is unafraid that his adversary may be reading from the same report — after all, an accurate and thorough investigation convicts the guilty and protects the innocent. Unfortunately, maintenance of secret police reports is still the norm in some jurisdictions, such as Williamson County.
The Williamson County district attorney's office not only denies counsel copies of reports duly prepared by police agencies, but even refuses to permit lawyers to read from them. Counsel is entitled to review the reports only at trial — a little late, if you are the unfortunate person on trial for a crime you didn't commit. This attitude reflects a neurotic insecurity about the talent and skill of its own prosecutors as well as distrust of the honesty and competency of local law enforcement. Worse, it suggests a need to hide police reports to maintain an unfair advantage, a policy elevating conviction rates above the interests of justice. Police reports should enter the sunshine of the adversary system earlier, more efficiently and more justly, as state lawmakers are preparing to ensure.
The police-report secrecy policy is driving lawmakers to consider discovery reform once again. One measure would mirror Lehmberg's approach as a model for the rest of Texas, which leaves discovery largely in prosecutors' hands. Another proposal would create a more elaborate, mutual discovery process. In either case, Travis County is ahead of the rest of the state and has demonstrated how efficiency and fairness are not mutually exclusive.
Monday, January 26, 2009
Secret police reports are anathema to justice
Kudos to new Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg for altering her department's longstanding policy of making defense lawyers copy police offense reports by hand instead of giving paper or electronic access. Keith Hampton, the legislative chair of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, wrote in the Austin Statesman ("Key legal reform would serve the interests of justice and taxpayers," Jan. 23) about the new policy change, contrasting it with Williamson County, where such reports are kept secret until trial: