Missouri Court of Appeals’ Decision Helps to Protect Victims’ and Witnesses’ Safety
Victims’ and witnesses’ voices were heard in their efforts to protect their personal information from getting into the hands of offenders
November 15, 2016, ST. LOUIS - The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District today upheld the practice of the Circuit Attorney’s Office to withhold the phone numbers, dates of birth and social security numbers of witnesses from criminal defendants as part of the discovery process. “It’s a good day for the people of the City of St. Louis,” said Circuit Attorney Jennifer M. Joyce. “While there is still work to be done, we believe important steps have been taken to protect the safety and cooperation of victims and witnesses.” The Court said it was “not persuaded” with the public defenders’ argument that “identifying information is a statement of a witness, and as such must be disclosed.”
For the last ten years, the Circuit Attorney’s Office has removed the addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and social security numbers of witnesses before releasing police reports to defense attorneys in order to protect their safety without objection from defense attorneys. CAO attorneys worked with defense attorneys to make witnesses safely available for interviews prior to trial. According to prosecutors, no case has ever been overturned due to this decade-long practice by prosecutors.
Last year, prosecutors filed a Writ of Mandamus against Circuit Judge Michael K. Mullen for his decision to require them to turn over social security numbers, telephone numbers and other private information of witnesses and victims under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 25.03. In today’s ruling, the Court of Appeals wrote “’A writ of prohibition [or] mandamus is the proper remedy for curing discovery rulings that exceed a court’s jurisdiction or constitute an abuse of the court’s discretion…Mandamus is a discretionary writ that is appropriate where a court has exceeded its jurisdiction or authority and where there is no remedy through appeal.” The Court of Appeals found Circuit Judge Mullen exceeded his jurisdiction and authority by requiring prosecutors turn over social security numbers, dates of birth, and phone numbers.
The Circuit Attorney’s Office had argued that since the Missouri Constitution recognizes that crime victims have “the right to reasonable protection from the defendant or any person acting on behalf of the defendant” [Mo. Constitution Art. 1, Sec. 32 1 (6)], Rule 25.03 is unconstitutional as it applies to crime victims and witnesses. While the Court upheld the rule, it stated, “We acknowledge the constitutional protections afforded crime victims, and we understand their importance. We sympathize with the plights of victims and witnesses, and are grateful for their participation in the criminal-justice system. We take seriously the retribution that victims and witnesses may face.”
“The system has an obligation to help protect the rights and safety of witnesses and victims as much as they do to protect the constitutional rights of defendants,” explained Joyce. “We took serious measures to protect people because this is a serious, life-or-death issue.” Prosecutors will continue to request protective orders on behalf of victims and witnesses on a case-by-case basis, and they will pursue other remedies to protect the safety of those working to pursue justice.
“We are grateful the Court of Appeals took this matter under consideration and took great care in addressing victims’ and witnesses’ rights,” said Joyce. “It shows they understand the significant courage people face when assisting in the prosecution of criminals.”