On November 10, 2015, the West Virginia Supreme Court handed down a decision that will likely be considered the most important ruling on criminal jurisprudence in this century. This decision will have far reaching implications in all future criminal cases in West Virginia.
In 1963, the United States Supreme Court held in Brady v. Maryland that a prosecuting attorney is under a duty to provide a criminal defendant with exculpatory or favorable evidence. The failure to provide this evidence is a violation of due process, irrespective of the good or bad faith of the prosecution. Over the years, the boundaries of Brady material have been litigated, but the holding in Brady has remained one of the most steadfast aspects of criminal law.
The duty to disclose exculpatory or favorable evidence applies not only to prosecutors, but also to law enforcement acting on the prosecution’s behalf. Thus, if a law enforcement officer is aware of Brady material, then that office must disclose the evidence to the prosecutor, who in turn, provides it to the criminal defendant.
Neither the United States Supreme Court nor the West Virginia Supreme Court has ever addressed whether a prosecutor’s duty under Brady applies to the plea bargaining state of a criminal case.
That questioned was answered in the affirmative by the West Virginia Supreme Court in Buffeyv. Ballard. The Court held that “A defendant’s constitutional due process rights, as enumerated in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), extend to the plea negotiation stage of the criminal proceedings, and a defendant may seek to withdraw a guilty plea based upon the prosecution’s suppression of material, exculpatory evidence.”
Statistics show that 94% of state court convictions are the result of guilty pleas. Therefore, plea bargaining is a critical aspect of a criminal case in which a criminal defendant should be provided with exculpatory evidence in which to make an intelligent decision before entering a plea.
Occasionally, prosecutors will withhold exculpatory evidence and offer a time sensitive plea. This pressures the criminal defendant to accept the plea without knowledge of all of the evidence, especially exculpatory evidence. The Court’s holding in Buffey will certainly put a damper on such a practice.