Law School Case Brief
United States v. Stever - 603 F.3d 747 (9th Cir. 2010)
Fed. R. Crim. P. 16 grants criminal defendants a broad right to discovery. The Government must disclose, upon defendant's request, all documents within the Government's possession, custody, or control that are material to preparing the defense. Fed. R. Crim. P. 16(a)(1)(E)(i). Information is in the possession of the Government if the prosecutor has knowledge of and access to the documents sought by the defendant. A defendant must make a threshold showing of materiality, which requires a presentation of facts which would tend to show that the Government is in possession of information helpful to the defense.
Defendant Andrew Stever his conviction in federal district court for conspiracy to manufacture 1000 or more marijuana plants and the manufacture of marijuana. Stever challenged two rulings of the district court: one that denied him discovery related to Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), and another that declared a defense based on DTOs off limits. Through discovery, Stever sought reports in the Government's possession describing the operation of Mexican DTOs involved in growing marijuana in the district where Stever resided. The district court refused to compel production of the desired information, and it ruled that Stever could not put on evidence regarding Mexican DTOs or "who else might have been involved." The district court insisted that evidence about who else was responsible for growing the marijuana was not relevant to assessing the likelihood that Stever was involved.
Did the district court abuse its discretion when it denied discovery of materials related to the operations of Mexican DTOs?
The appellate court reversed Stever's conviction. The court ruled that the district court's conclusion was illogical. Evidence that made it more likely that a Mexican DTO was responsible for the operation made it less likely that Stever was responsible. The evidence was relevant and reliable. It was also capable of evaluation by the trier of fact. The Miller factors weighed in favor of finding that the evidence was important to Stever's attempted defense. He was, quite literally, prevented from making his defense in violation of Sixth Amendment rights. The court could not say that disabling Stever from arguing that a Mexican DTO, not him, was responsible for the marijuana on his property was harmless error.
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