Prosecutorial misconduct is any unethical or illegal conduct by a prosecutor when handling a case. Prosecutors are bound by strict professional ethics, rules, and standards due to the power they wield. If a prosecutor engages in misconduct, they can be disciplined, and the defendant granted relief. Prosecutorial misconduct can occur at any stage of a criminal court process; it is not limited to a criminal trial. For instance, the misconduct could occur during sentencing hearings or pretrial proceedings.
The Main Types Of Prosecutorial Misconduct
Typically, the prosecutor may engage in four main types of prosecutorial misconduct:
- Introducing false evidence
- Failing to disclose exculpatory evidence
- Using improper arguments
- Discriminating during jury selection
When The Prosecutor Fails To Disclose Exculpatory Evidence
According to California law, the prosecutor has a legal duty to disclose any evidence that suggests that the accused person is not guilty. Any evidence that suggests the accused person deserves a lesser sentence must be disclosed. This type of evidence that could reduce the charges against the defendant is often known as Brady material. This title is derived from the case of Brady V. Maryland. The failure of the prosecutor to present or turn over Brady material could result in prosecutorial misconduct.
For example, you may be charged with rape, but you were at another party when the victim was raped. You deny the charges and point out that when the rape occurred, you were attending a party in another location. However, your criminal defense attorney does not have any witnesses or evidence showing that you were at the said party. A few days to trial, a person visits the prosecutor's office and informs them about seeing you at the party. However, determined to prove that you are guilty, the prosecutor fails to disclose this additional evidence. In this case, the prosecutor could be charged with prosecutorial misconduct for concealing the exculpatory evidence. You can file a Brady motion to try to obtain this material.
Introduction Of False Evidence In A Case
It is prosecutorial misconduct to introduce inadmissible or false evidence in a case. Some of the common examples of inadmissible evidence include:
- False testimony or lies from a witness
- Unfounded or untrue character evidence
- Hearsay statements
A typical case where a prosecutor may use inadmissible evidence involves relying on unreliable evidence from a law enforcement officer. If a prosecutor knows that a law enforcement officer is lying but still relies on the officer’s statement, they could be guilty of prosecutorial misconduct. The California Evidence Code 1200 makes hearsay statements inadmissible in a court proceeding.
The law defines a hearsay statement as any statement made by someone else other than a witness. The application of this rule of evidence is based on the fact that hearsay statements are not reliable enough to be used as evidence. A hearsay statement is not made under oath, and the speaker cannot be cross-examined in court like in the case of witnesses. The Evidence Code 1200 applies to both criminal and civil trials. It also applies to any hearing held as part of a sentencing hearing or a pretrial process. A hearsay statement could consist of any of the following:
- A written statement
- An oral or spoken statement
- Any non-verbal conduct that substitutes a written or an oral statement
It is important to note that the following does not count as a hearsay statement:
- Any statement made by another person, other than the witness testifying during a trial
- A statement not provided as proof of the truth of their content
The two types of statements are acceptable under the California Evidence Code. The reasoning behind hearsay statements is that if one side presents a hearsay statement, the other party will not have an opportunity to cross-examine the witness in court. California law sets a long list of exceptions to the hearsay rule. This exception allows the admission of statements deemed to be reliable, even if the statements are not made by a witness under oath or during the trial.
Unfounded Character Evidence
The California Evidence Code 1101 outlines that unfounded character evidence is not admissible in a California jury trial. This law means that the prosecutor should not introduce evidence of the immoral acts that the defendant committed in the past. The defendant's past actions, criminal or otherwise, should not be presented in a case to prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime for which they are being charged. There are certain exceptions to Evidence Code 1101.
For example, according to Evidence Code 1105, habit evidence is admissible in a case. The prosecutor may use habit evidence to prove that the defendant acted according to their past habits. Habit evidence is different from character evidence. Character evidence mainly focuses on a person's traits, while habit evidence focuses on a person's typical behavior. The law allows the prosecutor to introduce evidence of the defendant’s past to prove:
- The defendant had a motive to commit an offense.
- The defendant had a plan or intent to commit a crime
- The defendant had the chance or the opportunity to commit a crime.
According to California law PC 118, it is an offense to deliberately give a false witness under oath, commonly known as perjury. In addition, the prosecutor may face misconduct charges if they accept evidence despite knowing that the witness is lying.
When Prosecutor Makes An Improper Argument
A prosecutor may engage in prosecutorial misconduct if they make an improper argument or assertion during a criminal case. Instances of this type of misconduct include:
- Asserting or arguing about facts that are not in the evidence
- Commenting on the defendant’s choice not to testify
- Expressing personal opinion in matters of a case or evidence
- Providing inflammatory comments
It is misconduct for the prosecutor to engage in any of the facts outlined above. This form of misconduct mainly occurs when a prosecutor makes an opening or a closing statement or argument. You might be wondering about what asserting facts not in evidence means. In any criminal trial, the defense counsel and the prosecutor must provide evidence for any point they intend to assert. Referring to a fact for which the prosecutor has no evidence is a form of misconduct.
The law gives the defendant a choice to testify or fail to testify. The prosecutor has no right to comment about the defendant’s choice not to testify. According to California law, the defendant does not have to testify against themselves.
If the defendant exercises their right not to testify and the prosecutor comments about it, the prosecutor could face prosecutorial misconduct charges.
The law also prohibits the prosecutor from expressing their personal opinions on a matter in a trial. However, not every opinion will lead to misconduct. For example, the law allows the prosecutor to give their opinion regarding the defendant's guilt and the credibility of a witness. However, a prosecutor must ensure that their opinion is based on actual evidence presented at trial. As long as the opinion has a basis in the evidence presented, it is legal. However, any form of unfounded opinion could lead to prosecutorial misconduct. In addition, any inflammatory statement that the prosecutor makes could lead to prosecutorial misconduct. An inflammatory comment is any comment that is:
- Any comment appeals to the jury's passion.
The prosecutor could be guilty of making an inflammatory comment if they present a ‘’safe street argument’’ instead of presenting factual evidence indicating that the defendant committed a crime.
When The Prosecutor Discriminates When Selecting A Jury
Discriminating in jury selection is a form of prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecutor should never exclude a jury from a case based on the jury:
- Any other similar trait
Engaging in jury discrimination is not just misconduct but also a violation of:
- Juror’s rights as outlined by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
- The defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights since every defendant has a right to a fair trial.
Remedies In case Of Prosecutorial Misconduct
Several remedies are available to the defendant in case of prosecutorial misconduct:
- The judge may discharge the charges against the defendant
- The judge may instruct the jury to dismiss specific comments or evidence
- The judge may give the defendant a new trial
In the case of granting the defendant a new trial, the judge can give the defendant a new trial if the defendant's attorney files a motion for a new trial. The attorney must file a motion for a new trial before the defendant is sentenced. The remedies outlined above will not be available unless:
- The prosecutor’s misconduct prejudiced the defendant
- The defendant’s attorney objects to the prosecutor’s misconduct.
A defendant will only be entitled to a remedy if the prosecutor’s misconduct prejudiced them. This means that the prosecutor’s misconduct materially affected the trial’s outcome. A remedy is not granted if misconduct occurred, but it did not affect the case's outcome materially. The court will not consider the prosecutor's misconduct prejudicial if the evidence against the defendant was too much or overwhelming. Prosecutors' misconduct is not prejudicial if a case's outcome would have been the same even without the said misconduct.
The accused person cannot challenge prosecutorial misconduct unless their criminal defense attorney objects to the misconduct. Therefore, an attorney should object to misconduct when it occurs. The attorney needs to object to prosecutorial misconduct immediately; then, the judge can instruct the jury to disregard specific evidence. This instruction issued by the judge can, in turn, prevent prejudice and eliminate the need for a new trial. If the defendant's counsel fails to object to prosecutorial misconduct, the defendant can still seek a new trial based on ineffective assistance by counsel.
Malicious Or Vindictive Prosecution
Malicious or vindictive prosecution is a different form of prosecutorial misconduct. A prosecutor may engage in malicious prosecution if they file a case against the defendant without a legal basis or foundation. The case involved may be either criminal or civil. A prosecutor may bring a lawsuit against the defendant out of any ill will or other unjust reasons. Some of the common reasons behind prosecutorial misconduct include:
- Protection of the actual perpetrator of a crime
- Political gain
California law considers prosecutorial prosecution to have occurred if:
- A person files a malicious claim against another
- A person files a lawsuit for another purpose and not to win
- A person suffers damages as a result
Suing The Prosecutor In A Civil Court
You may sue the prosecutor successfully if the prosecutor files frivolous charges against you and you suffer damages due to the charges. You may also report any form of prosecutorial misconduct to the state bar. The prosecutor may lose their license depending on the facts of your case.
California Law On Prosecutorial Misconduct
According to California PC 1181, a judge may grant a new trial or declare a mistrial if there is a case of prosecutorial misconduct. California law recognizes prosecutorial misconduct provided the misconduct was not a harmless error but an intentional act that prejudiced a case's outcome. In addition, the defendant's attorney must object to the misconduct at trial.
Prosecutorial evidence may affect innocent people. In 1987, Michael Morton was accused of murdering his wife in Texas. This accusation was based on circumstantial evidence. The prosecutor never informed the defendant's counsel or gave them access to the police report where the defendant's three-year-old son stated that his father had not murdered his mother. After serving 25 years in prison, Morton was exonerated when attorneys got access to the police report and the DNA results of a bloody bandana found at the crime scene. The blood in the bandana matched that of a man who was in prison after murdering another woman.
Find A Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
It’s common for prosecutors to succumb to misconduct. California law requires the prosecutor to present the truth and give all exculpatory evidence to the defense. Many prosecutors find it hard to do this, especially amidst a heated trial. However, prosecutorial evidence affects the defendant's justice. If you are a victim of prosecutorial misconduct in Los Angeles, California, we invite you to contact the Law Office of Sarah L. Caplan. Our experienced attorneys will evaluate your case, help you file a motion for a new trial, or take other necessary steps. Contact us at 310-550-5877 and speak to one of our attorneys.