U.S. 5th Circuit holds 1) IA and CID not required to share evidence and 2) disclosure of exculpatory evidence is a “trial” right, not a right before accepting a plea offer

Alvarez v City of Brownsville, 16-40772 (5th Cir. Sept. 18, 2018)

This is a §1983/jail altercation case where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed a $2.3 million-dollar jury award and rendered judgment for the City. [Warning, opinion plus concurrences and dissents is a 61-page document.]

Alvarez (who was 19 at the time) was arrested for public intoxication and burglary of a vehicle. He was placed in a holding cell at the Brownsville PD.  He became disruptive and violent and officers attempted to transfer him to a padded cell to calm down. During the transfer an altercation occurred which was captured on video. An internal investigation occurred, and the video was reviewed. The IA investigation determined proper force was used to subdue Alvarez.   A simultaneous criminal track investigation also occurred for assault on a police officer.  Alvarez did not request the video and the video was not produced to Alvarez voluntarily. The PD has an internal policy where internal affairs information is not shared with the Criminal Investigation Division (“CID”).  The grand jury indicted Alvarez for assault on a public servant and he plead guilty to the charge. Upon discovering a video existed, he sued asserting the City violated his rights under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)(i.e. compelled release of exculpatory information). The City filed a summary judgment motion, which was denied. A jury awarded Alvarez $2.3 million dollars in damages and the City appealed.

To establish §1983 liability there must be: (1) a policymaker; (2) an official policy; and (3) a violation of a constitutional right whose “moving force” is the policy or custom. Alvarez “must show direct causation, i.e., that there was ‘a direct causal link’ between the policy and the violation.”   For purposes of the analysis, the court assumed, without deciding, the police chief was a final policymaker and that a policy existed preventing the sharing of information between IA and CID.  However, even with those assumptions, the court held no direct causal link existed between the policy and the constitutional violation. It is undisputed the CID investigator failed to inquire about video recordings and did not possess it when performing the criminal investigation. While that may have been a sloppy investigation, that does not create a causal connection. “This series of interconnected errors within the Brownsville Police Department that involved individual officers was separate from the general policy of non-disclosure of information from the internal administrative investigations. The general policy of non-disclosure was not a direct cause of Alvarez’s injury.”  Further, the general policy of non-disclosure was not implemented with “deliberate indifference.” Additionally, “[p]lacing the final decision-making authority in the hands of one individual, even if it makes an error more likely, does not by itself establish deliberate indifference.”  The court also analyzed the impact of Alvarez’s guilty plea on his Brady claim. Citing various U.S. Supreme Court cases, the 5th Circuit held exculpatory and impeachment evidence are not required to be released at every stage of a criminal case and not necessary before the defendant takes a plea agreement. “[W]hen a defendant chooses to admit his guilt, Brady concerns subside.” Essentially, a Brady right is a trial right, not a pre-trial right.  The court did list the other federal circuits which agree with this approach and those which disagree with this approach. However, the court adopted the “trial right” approach and dismissed Alvarez’s claims as a matter of law.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Court sitting en banc. Chief Judge Carl Stewart issued the opinion. Judge Duncan, Judge Engelhardt and Judge Oldham joined the court after this case was submitted and did not participate in the decision.