Law Enforcement, News Story Mislead New Yorkers About Discovery Reform

An article about speedy trial dismissals misled readers about the effects of New York's discovery laws.

Fact Check: Misleading

The Briefing

A recent article about speedy trial dismissals misled New Yorkers about the effects of discovery reform in the state. The Times-Union piece quoted law enforcement officials who falsely claimed discovery reform created onerous burdens on prosecutors to produce new evidence in order to comply with state laws. It also misled readers by tying violent felony dismissals to an overall increase in case dismissals, despite the fact that the violent felony dismissal rate is similar before and after discovery reform.

The violent felony dismissal rate is mostly unchanged

The story’s focus on violent crime in the lede and the subhead is misleading. The data shows that the violent felony dismissal rate is mostly unchanged. Indicted felonies are being dismissed at a similar rate in 2022 – after discovery reform – compared to in pre-discovery reform in 2019. There is no evidence to indicate that new discovery laws are causing alleged violent felonies to be dismissed at a higher rate. It is misleading for the article to highlight violent felony dismissals at the beginning of the story, especially when facts later in the story show that the case mentioned in the lede was dismissed because of self-described “failures” and missed deadlines from the district attorney’s office.

The reality is that when prosecutors want to prosecute a case and have the evidence to do so, the case moves forward. While the violent felony dismissal rate has stayed the same, there has been an increase in dismissals of low-level cases, indicating that prosecutors are taking a needed look at the types of cases they prosecute. Prior to discovery reform, prosecutors could allow low-level cases to sit in the system, extracting leverage from people charged with crimes and leading to coercive plea deals. The data indicates that these types of petty cases, where prosecutors likely do not have strong evidence to begin with, are being dismissed. While prosecutors claim that thousands of cases are being needlessly dismissed, the reality is that thousands of cases are being needlessly charged in the first place. The law is not too onerous to comply with – the evidence for this is the lack of dismissals for felonies. When prosecutors want to comply with discovery laws, they take the simple steps to do so.

Discovery reform did not create new burden for law enforcement

In the article, law enforcement officials claim that discovery reform created new burdens for prosecutors and police. This is false. New York’s discovery reform laws made the state consistent with jurisdictions across the county in requiring “open file discovery.” The change ensured people charged with crimes are able to see the evidence in possession of law enforcement, unless that information should be protected for some reason. 

The change did not  laws did not create a burden for law enforcement to collect “overwhelming amounts of paperwork” or “meticulously communicate” with police, as the article and Erie County DA John Flynn claim. Nor did the law enact a requirement that prosecutors seek out any information, documents, or evidence that is not in the control of law enforcement in the vast majority of cases.  In other words, in the vast majority of cases, the new laws only require a prosecutor to look at their own file and coordinate with the police department who made the arrest.

The law protects a constitutional right

The article also fails to mention that the right to a speedy trial is a bedrock principle of our country’s justice system and a right protected by the United States and New York constitutions. The implementation of a law that protects that right may be difficult, but that does not make it wrong. Prosecutors and defenders can agree that more resources are needed to implement the changes. The state legislature earmarked $170 million in its budget for prosecutors to implement the law. It is time to move beyond manipulated data and talking points and towards a future with a common sense law that protects the rights of New Yorkers.

Story Link

Story in the Times Union

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