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California Supreme Court Holds Discovery Statute Requiring ‘Good Cause’ Not Applicable When Evidence Held by Court

by Dale Chappell

Must a habeas petitioner in California show “good cause” under the habeas discovery statute to obtain evidence held by the court, just like he must do if the State held the evidence? No, a unanimous Supreme Court of California held, ordering the habeas court to reconsider releasing the evidence.

When death-row prisoner William Satele’s habeas counsel filed an informal request for the prosecutor to turn over evidence held in Satele’s criminal case, he clarified at a hearing that it was “not really” a discovery motion because the court actually possessed the evidence he was seeking and not the prosecutor. “It’s just evidence of the court,” he said.

What counsel wanted to see was ballistics evidence from a gun found in a car Satele was driving hours after the shooting death of a couple during a gang-related and racially-motivated murder connected to the West Side Wilmas gang.

The habeas court denied counsel’s request. Under Penal Code § 1054.9, a habeas petitioner may be granted discovery of evidence “in the possession of the prosecution and law enforcement authorities” if he can show “good cause to believe that access to physical evidence is reasonably necessary to the defendant’s efforts to obtain relief.” The statute vests the habeas court with jurisdiction to grant discovery to facilitate the prosecution of a habeas petition. The court said that Satele failed to show “good cause” and denied counsel’s request.

On appeal to the Court of Appeal, the court summarily affirmed the habeas court’s ruling, and the California Supreme Court subsequently denied review. However, the Court did grant review on its own motion to answer whether the “good cause” requirement under § 1054.9 applies to evidence held by the court.

Addressing this issue of first impression, the Court noted that “discovery is generally understood to mean an exchange of information among the parties to an action.” The court and its clerk are not “parties” in a criminal action, the Court explained.

The “plain language” of § 1054.9 clearly says that “discovery motions” are for those “materials in the possession of the prosecution and law enforcement authorities,” the Court noted. Therefore, § 1054.9 applies only to evidence that is in the possession of the prosecution, not the court, the Supreme Court concluded.

So, if “good cause” does not apply to requests for discovery of evidence held by the court, then what standard does apply, the Court asked. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court have held that there is a “general right” under common law to inspect and copy public records held by the court. This right ensures “judicial integrity” of the proceedings. And the court may release evidence in proper cases for evaluation outside the court.

Applying this reasoning, the Court held that habeas counsel’s request for evidence from the court (and not the prosecutor) was governed by these rules and not § 1054.9.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the habeas court’s denial of Satele’s request for discovery and remanded to the court “to exercise its inherent authority to grant access under whatever conditions it deems necessary.” See: Satele v. Superior Court, 444 P.3d 700 (Cal. 2019). 

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