Michigan Supreme Court Adopts New Discovery Rule for Criminal Cases in District Court

Randall Levine

The Michigan Supreme Court has adopted a rule which is likely to change the landscape for criminal defendants charged with misdemeanors and felonies before they are bound over to circuit court for trial. On March 5, 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court passed a new rule requiring the government to provide discovery to all criminal defendants in district court.

Criminal cases in Michigan can land in the district court in two different ways.  All misdemeanor cases (crimes punishable by no more than one year in jail) are filed in the district court and never leave there. The district court has ultimate jurisdiction to adjudicate misdemeanor offenses. For a number of years, defendants were not entitled, as a matter of right, to receive discovery from the government in misdemeanor cases.  Whether the government was required to provide information to a defendant charged with a misdemeanor, which would aid in his defense, was a matter vested totally within the discretion of the district court. That has changed. Now the government is required to provide police reports and other material evidence that may be helpful to a defendant to understand specifically the evidence the government intends to use against him at trial.  This will aid a defendant in plea bargaining decisions as well as the decision on whether or not he or she should exercise their constitutional right to have a jury trial.

All felony cases (cases punishable by in excess of one-year imprisonment) start in the district court, which has limited jurisdiction to conduct a preliminary examination. A preliminary examination is a probable cause hearing where the government must show there is probable cause to believe the offense was committed by a defendant before it moves to the circuit court for trial.

For many years, providing discovery in district court prior to preliminary examination was left to the discretion of the judge, whether or not the government was required to provide it. A preliminary examination is a critical stage in the proceeding. Competent defense counsel will test the strength of the government’s case by cross-examination at the exam. In order to be effective, counsel must be afforded discovery in district court prior to the preliminary examination. The new court rule provides defense counsel with this opportunity.

The Michigan Supreme Court is to be commended. The new rule promotes fairness and gives defendants an opportunity to intelligently assess the evidence against them. Ultimately, this new rule will further the ends of justice.

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