POLICE OFFICER INTERNAL AFFAIRS RECORDS DISCOVERABLE FOR CRIMINAL DEFENSE
Appellate Docket No.: A-28-21
Decided March 30, 2023
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent opinion, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has not made internal affairs records for police officers discoverable for criminal defendants in certain circumstances.
In State v. Higgs, Defendant and May had been involved in a romantic relationship and shared a child. On the evening of May’s death, defendant and May were arguing on her front porch when East Orange Police Officer Kemon Lee approached them after hearing a woman’s voice shout “police” several times while he patrolled the area.
Officer Lee testified that shortly after exiting his patrol car, he asked May to come down from the porch, but defendant began shooting May. Officer Lee returned fire and shot defendant several times. Defendant testified to a different version of events. Defendant stated that May pulled out a gun during their argument, and defendant took the gun away from her. According to defendant, he tried to surrender as Officer Lee approached, but the officer fired his weapon at defendant which led to the involuntary discharge of the gun in defendant’s hand, causing May’s death.
Prior to trial, defendant sought access to Officer Lee’s internal affairs file, which included prior incidents of the officer firing his weapon while on duty. Defendant argued that the prior incidents were relevant to his defense that Officer Lee fired first. The trial court denied access to the file.
Defendant was convicted of murder, among other offenses, and sentenced to life imprisonment. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s convictions and sentence, finding no error with the trial court’s rulings.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the conviction, providing a new framework for internal affairs records in criminal defense cases.
Going forward, a defendant who seeks discovery of information from an internal affairs file must first file a motion with the trial court requesting an in camera review of that file. The motion shall identify the specific category of information the defendant seeks and the relevance of that information to the defendant’s case. A general allegation that the defendant is in search of information relevant to a law enforcement officer’s credibility for impeachment purposes would be insufficient to obtain review of the file. In order for a trial court to grant a motion to conduct an in camera review of an internal affairs file, the defendant must point to a specific category or type of evidence and assert that the evidence, if present in the file, has a relevant nexus to an issue in the case. The Court anticipates that many defendants will be in a position to meet the relevancy standard and declines to adopt the more stringent “peculiar evidence” standard articulated over two decades ago in State v. Harris, 316 N.J. Super. 384 (App. Div. 1998). If the trial court determines as a threshold matter that the requested information, if present in the internal affairs file, would be relevant to the defendant’s case — for impeachment purposes or to support the defense’s theory, for example — the trial court shall grant the defendant’s motion and conduct an in camera review of the internal affairs records outside the presence of the parties. The in camera review by the trial court would be solely for the purpose of determining whether the category of identified information exists in the internal affairs file. If, upon review, the trial court determines that the requested information is present in the file, both parties shall be allowed to review the relevant portion of the file, subject to any protective orders entered by the trial court. If the evidence sought is present in the file and relevant to the case, the court must balance its relevance against potential undue prejudice, as required in N.J.R.E. 403, prior to allowing that evidence in at trial. The Court provides additional guidance, including as to the application of the new framework in this case.
This case has significant impacts on criminal cases moving forward when there could be prior police misconduct that is taking place in another case. If you or someone you know have been charged with any indictable offense or disorderly persons, and you suspect police misconduct could be occurring, contact the experienced attorney at Hark & Hark to ensure you are adequately defended as the internal affairs records may now be pursued and grounds for dismissal.
At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in Superior Court and municipal court for indictable charges and disorderly persons offenses like the present case. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to uphold their constitutional rights, and ensure law enforcement follow proper procedures to legally make an arrest.
We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing criminal charges similar to this circumstance, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic County, Bergen County, Burlington County, Camden County, Cape May County, Cumberland County, Essex County, Gloucester County, Hudson County, Hunterdon County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Morris County, Ocean County, Passaic County, Salem County, Somerset County, Sussex County, Union County, and Warren County and any town including Audubon, Gloucester City, Oaklyn, Audubon Park, Gloucester Township, Pennsauken, Barrington ,Haddon Heights ,Pine Hill ,Bellmawr ,Haddon Township , Pine Valley, Berlin Borough, Haddonfield, Runnemede, Berlin Township, Hi-Nella, Somerdale, Brooklawn, Laurel Springs, Stratford, Camden, Lawnside, Voorhees, Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Waterford, Chesilhurst, Magnolia, Winslow, Clementon, Merchantville, Woodlynne, Collingswood, Mt. Ephraim, and Gibbsboro.